Monday, November 18, 2013

NBC Dateline: "The Wrong Man": the story of Ryan Ferguson and his wrongful conviction in Missouri based on flimsy "dreams" and "eyewitness" testimony without physical evidence

On Friday Nov. 15, 2013, NBC Dateline aired an episode   “The Wrong Man” , is a story about the unjust conviction of Ryan Ferguson in Missouri, with Keith Morrison reporting.  I have already discussed the case, and his release from prison after the overturning of his conviction for the murder of sports editor Kent Heitholt  and the CBS “48 Hours” episodes on his case on the Issues blog, Nov. 14, 2013.

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The case had started when Ferguson and Erickson got into a college bar underage.  Erickson had trouble remembering the night, and when the story about a robbery and killing of the editor in town surfaced two years later, Erickson started to dream that he had done it and told police.  Prosecutors got momentum, and became overzealous to get a conviction.  There is a discussion on “Criminal Justice School” as to how people sometimes make false confessions and believe they have committed crimes they actually didn’t commit, here
Ryan describes his surprise at Erickson’s bringing up the crime two years afterward, when a reporter did a story on it, and then his own sudden arrest after being followed home.  
The heart of the episode concerned the pro bono legal work of Kathleen Zellner, finally getting an appeals court to overturn the conviction and to get the DA agree not to retry the case.

The broadcast shows the original trial, including the testimony of the janitor, as well as Ferguson’s straightforward denials.

What’s obviously striking about the case now is the need for Ferguson’s forgiveness of Erickson, and of the system for taking away 9 years of Ryan’s life “for no reason”.  Also noteworthy is the Ferguson’s father’s determination in the case. Finally, Zelllner realized that probably Erickson had also not been present at the scene, and the Datelines report made it look probable that his guilty plea would eventually be overturned.  Hollywood Reporter has a detailed story here.  

Would this story make a good documentary independent movie?  I think so.

The Innocence Project has an account here
See also “The Exonerated” on July 23, 2012 on this blog.

The actual picture for this story is in Herrington, KS (mine, 2006).

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