Charles Erickson seeks release from prison in Heitholt homicide

Claims confession, guilty plea was coerced

Charles Erickson seeks release from prison in Heitholt homicide

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Five years after Ryan Ferguson walked out of prison after winning a lengthy court battle for his freedom, Charles Erickson is now asking for his. 

Erickson, 34, has filed a petition in Pike County, where his prison is located, that alleges Boone County prosecutors and Columbia police coerced him into confessing to the murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt on Halloween night 2001.

In 2004, Erickson confessed and pleaded guilty to the crime, while Ferguson pleaded not guilty.  Because of his confession and story, Erickson became a key witness for the prosecution's case against Ferguson in Dec. 2005. During the trial, Ferguson's defense attempted to poke holes in Erickson's then-recollection of the murder.

Kansas City-based attorney Landon Magnusson has taken the first legal steps for Erickson, who says he was coerced into confessing to a crime he didn't commit.

"I think he was gaslighted into believing that he really did something that he did not do," Magnusson said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.

Magnusson, who is working pro bono for Erickson at the request of the Midwest Innocence Project, filed the nearly 90-page writ of habeas corpus for Erickson on Dec. 11. In thorough detail, he laid out why Erickson's guilty plea and his prison sentence are unconstitutional, and his sentence should be vacated.

"His guilty plea was neither voluntary or knowing," he said.

In the court documents, Magnusson details the "no-holds-barred" approach that the police and prosecution used to convince a jury that Ferguson and Erickson attacked, robbed, and murdered Heitholt.

"They withheld evidence. They fabricated evidence. And they unconstitutionally coerced Charles to falsely confess and plead guilty," Magnusson wrote.

Erickson's emotional and psychological frailties -- which included obsessive compulsive disorder, significant drug abuse, and the fact that he could not remember the evening -- contributed to that coercion, according to his attorney.

"He actually thought he committed this crime," Magnusson told ABC 17 News.

Magnusson details what he called the police's "unrelenting" efforts to get Erickson to confess. He said they used the tactic of correcting Erickson's version of events.

"After Charles claimed he had struck Mr. Heitholt only once, a detective informed him that there were 'multiple, multiple, multiple contusions, hits, and strikes on (Mr. Heitholt's) head,'" Magnusson wrote.

Many of Erickson's options have already slipped through his fingers due to timing and inaction by previous attorneys for one reason or another. 

"Any other thing he could have done or tried, it's gone," said Magnusson. "This is really his only option, his only opportunity to get freedom is starting with this... petition," he said. 

By finally having the opportunity to exercise his legal options, Magnusson said Erickson feels a kind of "Zen."

"I think there was a feeling of relief," he said. "Even if everything doesn't pan out as it should, that he's finally getting his opportunity, his chance, to set the record straight."

Magnusson said there will be a hearing in January at which a judge will consider whether to grant the petition. 

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