In an opinion-editorial published by the Columbia Daily Tribune, Rodney Uphoff, the Elwood Thomas Missouri Endowed Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law, analyzes the legal posture of Chuck Erickson’s case, the co-defendant of Ryan Ferguson who remains in prison for murder.
Ferguson’s conviction for the 2001 strangulation of sports editor Kent Heitholt in the Tribune‘s parking lot was overturned by the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District last month after it was discovered that prosecutors in the case failed to disclose evidence that could have been used to impeach one of the state’s key witnesses.
Given that Erickson’s testimony against Ferguson at trial was handily picked apart by Ferguson’s lawyers, the eyewitness identification made by Jerry Trump, a janitor at the Tribune at the time of the crime, was crucial to securing a conviction against Ferguson. However, in an interview with the prosecution, Trump’s wife said she didn’t recall sending her husband the newspaper that he was supposedly reading when he saw a picture of Erickson and Ferguson and identified the two as being at the scene of the murder. Both Erickson and Trump later recanted their testimony. (Read the Court of Appeals opinion here.)
Even though Ferguson has been freed, Uphoff writes, it is unclear whether Erickson – who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and confessed to the crime – will be able to secure similar relief.
Uphoff goes on to discuss prosecutorial misconduct in Missouri more broadly, and remedies to prevent injustices like the case of Ryan Ferguson:
Finally, the Ferguson case is only one of a number of high-profile cases in Missouri and around the country in which defendants have been completely exonerated or, at the very least, denied a fair trial because of the prosecutor’s failure to disclose Brady material. This prosecutorial obligation to turn over to the defense any evidence that points to the defendant’s innocence or that he deserves a lesser sentence is not new. The Brady case dates back to 1963. Brady material also covers impeachment evidence, which was what was wrongly withheld in Ferguson’s case.
Most prosecutors do what they are ethically and constitutionally required to do and do not withhold Brady material from the defense. There are too many cases, however, of serious Brady violations that have led to the conviction of innocent defendants. Taxpayers in some instances have had to pay sizeable judgments to innocent defendants because the police or a prosecutor misbehaved. Sadly, in many instances, the prosecutor himself or herself paid no price despite egregious misconduct. There have been exceptions. The prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse rape case was disbarred, as was the prosecutor in Texas whose failure to disclose exculpatory material resulted in 25 years in prison for a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. That Texas prosecutor also was recently sentenced to 10 days in jail. In most cases, however, the bar disciplinary authorities take no action against the prosecutor. That needs to change. We need to hold those prosecutors who blatantly violate the rules of professional conduct accountable.
Additionally, we need our state legislators to ensure that police and prosecutors follow the law by making it a crime to withhold exculpatory material from the defendant. In the long run, the threat of prosecution will deter police and prosecutors from hiding material, avoid unnecessary litigation after a trial and minimize the conviction of innocent people. If we are going to hold citizens accountable for their misdeeds, we also should hold police and prosecutors accountable for their misconduct.
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