On a bitterly cold February day in 2009, Joshua Kezer stood outside the Jefferson City Correctional Center and sucked in his first breath of freedom in more than a decade.
Then the 34-year-old spoke the two words that knocked me for a loop.
Kezer had just been set free after then-Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan issued an order of “actual innocence” in his case, finding that he had been wrongly prosecuted for the 1992 Cape Girardeau murder of Angela Lawless.
In prison, Kezer found God, and he found a friend in Ferguson, another twentysomething convicted of a murder he said he didn’t commit. In his last moments before tasting freedom, Kezer spent some private moments behind bars with Ferguson. Then he told the reporters gathered there that “there are others” like him, wrongly convicted men wasting their youths away in prison. People like Ryan Ferguson.
In 2001, in the early morning hours following Halloween, I was awakened by a phone call from Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, where I worked at the time. His news was awful: Kent Heitholt, the paper’s sports editor, had been killed. His family lost a son, a father and a husband. We at the Tribune had lost a colleague. The entire city lost a bigger-than-life friend. It was a tough time.
In spring 2004, police arrested two young men, Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson, and charged them with murdering Heitholt. Erickson claimed he’d remembered the crime in a dream; under severe questioning from a Columbia detective, he confessed to the crime and implicated Ferguson.
Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane would say that they happened upon Heitholt when they were looking for someone to rob to buy booze. Kent had left work late, as he often did. The two 17-year-olds happened upon him in the Tribune parking lot, Crane said, and brutally beat him before strangling him with his own belt.
For weeks after his death, I’d try to avoid walking by the section of parking lot where Heitholt had parked. I’d avoid the the side door where he last left the building.
Like so many of my colleagues, I wanted to believe the cops had the right guy.
Then I met Bill Ferguson.
Ryan’s father was in the early stages of what would become a 9-year quest to prove his son’s innocence. A mutual friend arranged a meeting, which led to a series of columns I wrote questioning the evidence in the case. The columns didn’t earn me any friends in the Tribune family.
Later, during the trial, my daily columns strained my relationship with Bill Ferguson. His son’s testimony wasn’t believable. His son’s chief witness, memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, was laughably bad. The jury believed Chuck Erickson. So did I.
Here’s what I wrote the day the jury convicted Ferguson:
“In the end, the jurors saw the evidence through the filtered prism of a judicial system that does everything it can to make sure there are 12 people in the courtroom not blinded by the bias that invades the rest of us as we choose sides, make rash judgments and see what we want to see. In the end, the jurors believed the simple words of Crane. ‘You know what the truth is,’ he told them. ‘Guilty.’ ”
On Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District set that verdict aside.
Ferguson is no longer guilty. The prosecution failed to disclose to the defense the existence of an interview with the wife of one of the eyewitnesses that could have impeached the testimony of former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump. Called a “Brady violation,” it’s the sort of nondisclosure that is too common among prosecutors.
The 2003 book “Harmful Error,” published by the Center for Public Integrity, reviewed 11,452 cases between 1979 and 2003 in which defendants alleged prosecutorial misconduct. It found 2,012 cases in which the convictions were reversed because of those mistakes. The numbers in Missouri were compelling, in a bad way: 376 cases reviewed; 77 reversals. Since the book came out, there have been several high-profile cases in Missouri in which innocent men were freed. Some of those defendants, like Kezer, were found to be “actually innocent.”
That’s not the case with Ferguson, though it’s unlikely he’ll ever be retried in a case that turned on witnesses — Erickson and Trump — who have changed their stories.
On the day Joshua Kezer walked out of jail a free man, I was able to look him in the eye and believe that justice was done, that an innocent man was properly going free. But then again, I didn’t know the victim, Angela Lawless. I didn’t know the prosecutor or the lead detective in the case, as I did in the Ferguson case. I didn’t sit in the courtroom after the Cape Girardeau trial, as I did in Columbia, and listen to detective John Short tell me he was as convinced of the guilt of Ferguson and Erickson as any murder case he had investigated.
All these years later, removed from the case, from the people and from Columbia, the appeals court ruling is a damning document. In agonizing detail, it outlines mistakes made in the case. It calls the state’s arguments against a new trial “facially absurd” and “repugnant to the concept of fundamental fairness.”
We may never know what happened in the Tribune parking lot in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2001, other than the fact that a good man died.
The court had no choice but to set the young man free.
Justice has been done. Truth remains elusive.