COLUMBIA, Mo. - The Missouri Western District Court of Appeals handed down its opinion in the case of Ryan Ferguson, ruling in his favor and overturning his convictions.
In the 54-page opinion released Tuesday, all three judges stated Ferguson's convictions for murder and robbery should be "vacated."
The appeals court said that prosecutors withheld evidence from defense attorneys for Ferguson that could have aided him during his trial.
Specifically, the court said prosecutors should have shared evidence from an interview with the wife of one of the prosecution's key witnesses that could have raised questions about his ability to identify Ferguson.
Ferguson, 28, and his friend, Charles Erickson, were both charged with robbing and killing Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt as he left work on Halloween night 2001.
The case gained national attention, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "20/20." Ferguson's 2005 conviction relied heavily on Erickson's testimony. He said he had recalled from dreams several years later that the two of them had been involved in Heitholt's killing after a late night of Halloween partying.
Erickson accepted a plea deal and testified that he and Ferguson committed the crime together for drinking money. Erickson received a 25-year sentence.
Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery in 2005 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
He has maintained his innocence the entire time.
His attorney, Kathleen Zellner, has said there is no physical evidence connecting Ferguson to the crime.
In January, Ferguson's legal team filed a writ of habeas corpus, meaning his team believes he is being held on insufficient evidence. The only evidence linking Ferguson to the murder were the testimonies of Erickson and a janitor, Jerry Trump, who testified he saw Ferguson at the murder scene.
Erickson later recanted his story and in April 2012, Trump told a Cole County court that he lied as well. Trump said he had been pressured to identify Ferguson as the killer.
According to Tuesday's ruling, the court says the state has 15 days to retry Ferguson. If the state does not file a written election to retry Ferguson within those 15 days, Ferguson must be "immediately and unconditionally discharged."
Just two hours after the decision, Ferguson's parents told ABC 17 News they were ready for any action by the state.
"We look forward to it if they want to do that," his father Bill Ferguson said. "I can hardly wait to see who their witnesses are, I can hardly wait to see what piece of evidence they are going to bring forward since it's all been thrown out."
"I think that it would be wise for them just to admit defeat," he continued. "Just let it go."
Ferguson's mother Leslie said Tuesday the nearly decade-long fight for his freedom was worth it.
"As parents you're going to do what you can do to help your child," she said. "And knowing that Ryan was innocent, you just had to fight for him. I'm really happy that these three judges looked at the evidence and looked at the facts."
A spokesperson for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says their office "will review the Court's decision and consult with the Boone County prosecutor's office in the coming days regarding appropriate next steps to take in this matter."
Zellner plans to seek Ferguson's immediate release. She says her office plans to file a motion seeking his release on bond pending a decision on whether to retry him.
"When I told him what had happened, he was speechless, then he was very excited. He seemed like he was in shock," said Zellner.
"I think we're overusing the word 'elated'," Bill Ferguson said earlier Monday. "But he was shocked, elated and vindicated."
Ferguson's parents, Bill and Leslie Ferguson, and his attorney, Kathleen Zellner, held a press conference at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday.
The Fergusons also told ABC 17 News they would continue efforts to find Kent Heitholt's killer, using the FreeRyanFerguson.com site and tip line.
"We want to find this individual," Bill Ferguson said. "He is the missing link to this murder case and if we can find him, we can solve this murder case."
Ferguson added that the tip line had yielded one "solid" lead in the case, but did not elaborate.
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