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Ryan Ferguson vows to help free friend whose testimony put him behind bars

Tonight at 8/7c, Dateline covers the story of Ryan Ferguson, released Tuesday from prison after nearly 10 years in prison for a murder he has always said he never committed. Keith Morrison reports.

As Ryan Ferguson reunited with his family and began his new life as a free man after nearly 10 years behind bars, he vowed to fight to free Chuck Erickson—the man whose now recanted accusation and confession put Ferguson in jail.

“People get caught up in the sensationalism of another innocent person getting out of prison,” Ferguson told Dateline NBC’s Keith Morrison, who has been following the case since 2011. 

“But, really, what needs to be looked at is how did that innocent person end up in prison to begin with? And I think that's what we need to address from here on.”

The Ferguson family has offered a $10,000 reward for any tips in the case.

Ferguson, 29, was released from prison Tuesday after prosecutors in Missouri announced they would not retry him for the murder of newspaper editor Kent Heitholt on Halloween night in 2001. Ferguson was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. 

At a news conference Tuesday evening, Ferguson walked into the room to loud cheers and applause that erupted repeatedly throughout his address. 

"I feel like Jay Leno or something," he told the crowd, adding: "The difficult part is over for sure.”

Ferguson thanked his family, his lawyers and his supporters, and said he wouldn't have had any hope without them. He also thanked the attorney general "for looking at the facts of the case and making a decision based on the facts."

The hope of Ferguson’s possible release came last week when the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District vacated Ferguson's 40-year sentence, stating that prosecutors had withheld key evidence from defense attorneys in the trial.

"Under the facts and circumstances of this case, we conclude that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial," Judge Cynthia Martin wrote in a summary of her decision. "His verdict is not worthy of confidence."

After hiring special prosecutor Susan Boresi to review their options, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office has decided not to pursue retrying the case.

“After studying the appellate court’s opinion in Ferguson v. Dormire and carefully reviewing the remaining known evidence in the case, the Attorney General’s Office will not retry or pursue further action against Ryan Ferguson at this time,” Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said in a statement.

Zellner, Ferguson's attorney, said she feels vindicated.

“This trial was not fair because it violated the Constitution. And that’s why the conviction was vacated.  This was not a fair trial,” she said.

When asked to describe the time he spent in jail, Ferguson said: "Oppression is a good word for it," adding: "It’s a struggle. Pure and simple, it’s a struggle.”

Yet he also attributed his even-keel attitude to his time in the joint. 

"I mean living in prison you got to stay levelheaded," said Ferguson. "If you have letdowns, if you let emotions take control then you can be victimized very easily. So, you know, from day one my dad always told me, you know, he said, 'You gotta be stronger, faster and smarter.' So do everything you can to make yourself that way."

Ferguson said he looked forward to eating at fast food restaurant Dairy Queen. 

The case has been known as the “Dream Murder”: As a full moon loomed overhead on a Halloween night, two 17-year-olds, Ferguson and friend Erickson, were drinking, illegally, at a college bar.

Just miles away, Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Heitholt was later found strangled in the newspaper's parking lot.

For two years the case went cold — until Erickson came forward stating that he had been having “dreamlike” memories of the murder and implicated Ferguson as an accomplice in robbing and killing Heitholt.

A night custodian, Jerry Trump, who was near the scene the night of the murder remembered seeing two young men whom at first he had trouble describing — but later testified to be both Ferguson and Erickson.

Ferguson was soon arrested and tried but repeatedly denied that he had any involvement in the murder and fought to overturn his conviction from the beginning.

“What he said about being at the crime scene, me being at the crime scene, was all false,” Ferguson told "Dateline" in a 2012 interview.

Erickson, who pleaded guilty to a lesser sentence of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery, and the night custodian who identified Ferguson as one of the young men he saw in the parking lot that night both testified against Ferguson in 2005 and were crucial in the state's securing a conviction.

And yet, for a case that seemed closed, the story only got stranger.

Both Erickson and Trump later recanted their accounts, admitting to a lower court judge in 2012 that they lied on the stand during Ferguson’s trial.

What’s more, DNA, bloody shoe impressions and fingerprints at the scene did not match either Ferguson or Erickson.

But even with the recanted testimonies and no evidence linking Ferguson to the crime, he found himself still sitting behind bars with appeal after appeal being denied.

In the end, the final successful appeal hinged on what’s known as a “Brady violation,” which meant that state prosecutors, according to the appeals court, failed to share key evidence: an interview with Trump’s wife that would have raised questions about the custodian's ability to identify Ferguson.

That interview would have disclosed that Trump’s wife had no recollection of showing her husband a newspaper with the account of Heitholt’s murder. During trial, Trump testified that the article had jogged his memory in identifying the two teens.

"The undisclosed interview was material, resulting in a verdict that is not worthy of confidence," Judge Martin wrote in the 3-0 decision.

The court ordered that Ferguson be released if prosecutors did not file notice of a retrial within 15 days. After more than 3,000 days behind bars, Ferguson becomes a free man.

His father, Bill Ferguson, couldn’t be happier.

“We’re so proud of him, so proud of him.  You know, there's some people, no matter what you do, you cannot keep them down.  He's an example of that.”

At Tuesday's news conference, Ferguson said there are many other people in the criminal justice system who need help.

"There are more innocent people in prison,” he said, adding that Erickson was one of them. 

"I know that he was used and manipulated and I kind of feel sorry for the guy," he said.

"He needs help, he needs support, he doesn't belong in prison.”

Ferguson added: "He's not a killer."

The Ferguson family has vowed to help free Erickson and put the real murderer behind bars.

“We're going to continue to work hard on that, find out who did this-- get them convicted.  You know, closure from our family, for the Heitholt family.”

NBC News' Becky Bratu contributed to this report. 


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