Tuesday, November 12, 2013

One wrongful conviction saga comes to a deligtfully abrupt end

Every once in a while, it happens. Every once in a while, a prosecutor pleasantly surprises me. Today is one of those days. Living so near to Missouri, I have been aware of the Ryan Ferguson case for years. He was still just a teenager when he was accused of a murder in Columbia, MO. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence and his father has worked doggedly to keep the case in the news and build a public groundswell of support for Ryan. Over the years, the case against Ryan has fallen apart. The CBS 48 Hours reporter who researched the case for that show has unabashedly proclaimed her belief in his innocence. (Yes, press, it is actually ok to take a position on something once you've done your research and know the facts.)

Finally, last week, an appellate court in Missouri granted Ryan a new trial. Immediately, his dad and lawyer were talking about how quickly he would be released. I'm a cynical pessimist with a background in appellate practice, so I thought that was naive talk because I assumed the state would appeal the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court. I further assumed that the prosecution would insist on retrying Ryan because that's the usual course of things. Prosecutors don't tend to give up. Often, even when there's a new DNA result that doesn't match the defendant and the theory all along has been that there was a single perpetrator, prosecutors are more willing to amend their theory that there was a second attacker rather than admit the defendant wasn't involved. (This is not always true, of course, but it does happen.)

But today, those prosecutors in the position to make a decision about the Ryan Ferguson case decided to do the right thing and let the case go. Just a few hours ago, Ryan left the Boone County Jail (in a car decked out with his picture, which I'm presuming was part of his father's billboard campaign to free him). These prosecutors recognized that they had no case against Ryan and so decided to acknowledge that truth rather than cling to a discredited theory of guilt. I hope this also means they will reopen the case and work to find the actual killer.

There's another twist to the Ryan Ferguson saga, though. There's still someone in prison for this murder, a person whose conviction is based on the same theory of guilt as Ryan's was. In fact, the other individual, Charles Erickson, was one of the two witnesses who truly implicated Ryan at trial. But Erickson's testimony was always problematic and he has long since recanted. (Hint: when a defendant talks about his memories of the crime in terms of a "dream," that's a sign of a possible false confession.) Erickson is not currently in any position to have his conviction overturned as he entered a plea. He's sort of the forgotten man in this saga, probably earning less sympathy from most people for having brought this on himself by claiming he and Ryan were the culprits. (I'm not sure how it came about that he gave the statement and testimony he did.)

So while it's fabulous to see Ryan Ferguson going home tonight, the work of the prosecutors dealing with this murder case isn't done. If Ryan Ferguson wasn't involved, then the guy he was with that night without whose false claims you wouldn't have convicted Ryan wasn't involved, either. So you still have one wrongly convicted guy behind bars and you still have a wrongly-free murderer on the loose. One error corrected, two to go.

You didn't think I would really be satisfied by a prosecutor's actions, did you?


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