A Father’s Odyssey

Here’s what you should believe is true:

  • In the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2001, 17-year-old high school students Charles Erickson and Ryan Ferguson, after a night of partying and drinking, mercilessly and relentlessly beat and strangled Kent Heitholt, a 48-year-old newspaper sports editor, until he died, and left him on the Columbia Daily Tribune parking lot asphalt in a pool of blood.
  • A bit more than two years later, Erickson recovered memories of his grisly deed, ones he’d suppressed because the incident was so traumatic; he then confessed to police, after managing to remember key elements of the crime, and implicated Ferguson, who so far had concealed his participation after committing what seemed like the perfect crime — until he got caught.
  • Both Erickson and Ferguson deserve their prison terms of 25 years and 40 years, respectively, because what they did warrants punishment and because a civilized society justifiably demands retribution as a deterrent to crime.

You should believe this is true because America is a nation governed by the rule of law. Our founders, chastened by the excesses of European monarchies, forged a system of government that has transformed our country into a beacon of freedom and liberty. We select or elect government officials based on a system of representation that guarantees all people are treated equally in the eyes of the law and are protected against unnecessary intrusions into their lives and liberties.

In Columbia, a county prosecutor determined that the evidence — gathered by the police in accordance with constitutional, statutory and case-law provisions that protect every person’s rights — established beyond a reasonable doubt that these two young men killed an innocent, unsuspecting victim in cold blood. Both were charged and given the right to a fair trial while represented by competent counsel, what we call due process. Chuck Erickson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and other crimes, and then in a deal with prosecutors agreed to testify against Ryan Ferguson, which he did under oath.

A jury of good people from a county some 100 miles away, untainted by the blizzard of media reports that saturated Columbia after the murder, sat in a Boone County courtroom for five days and listened to all the evidence before deciding unanimously that Ryan Ferguson was guilty of second-degree murder and robbery. That same jury recommended he serve the 40-year sentence. He is currently incarcerated at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, justly charged, convicted, sentenced and punished.

Here is what Bill Ferguson, Ryan’s father, believes: In the case of his son, that’s all a load of crap.

For more than six years, ever since the day his son was arrested in March 2004, Bill Ferguson has committed himself to freeing Ryan, believing to his very core that his clean-cut, all-American son could not have ripped the belt off Heitholt’s beaten and bloodied body as he lay there incapacitated, and then used it to choke the life out of the fallen man. Indefatigable in his pursuit, Ferguson has plodded forward through the years, undeterred by a cascade of failures at nearly every milestone. Ask him whether he’s ever doubted his son’s consistent claims of innocence, and the expression on his face reads as if he’s about to say, “you must be nuts.” Instead, he says, “My son wouldn’t do this; my son didn’t do this.”

And here is what some have come to believe after spending a little time with him: Ferguson may be right.

For all the twists and turns this case has navigated for the past nine years, it all boils down to a question of what happened during 16 minutes in the early morning hours the day after Halloween in 2001. Around 2:08 a.m., Heitholt logged off his computer at the Tribune, and left the building shortly thereafter. A co-worker, leaving at about the same time, spoke to Heitholt in the parking lot at about 2:10 p.m. By 2:26, a 911 call from two janitors reported the attack on Heitholt.

Despite blood trails, smudged fingerprints, hairs, murky descriptions of two young, Caucasian assailants and shoe prints attributed to them that marked their escape from the scene, none of the forensic evidence pointed to any suspect. Two composite sketches were released to the public based on a witness’s best descriptions and a Crime Stoppers film was even sent to prison inmates, but neither tool yielded the identity of the perpetrators. The police followed up on hundreds of leads, but after more than two years, they still had nothing.

Then in early 2004, Erickson experienced an awakening of sorts, pointing to vague aspects of his involvement in the Heitholt murder. After he told friends about his connection, a tip to the police resulted in a March 10 interrogation that produced muddled responses at best. The police videotape of that interrogation shows a struggling Erickson who wonders whether he is actually remembering events, or just fantasizing them.

“I don’t know if I’m just flippin’ out or whatever,” he says at one point. “I’m just kind of presuming what happened. I’m making presumptions based on what I read in the newspaper.”

At other times, Erickson rationalizes his lack of detailed memories by saying, “I might not even know what I’m talking about … I can’t recollect and it’s just a trip for me to have to sit here and try to look at something I read about and try to base what I remember off of that, you know? It’s a mind fuck …

“It’s just so foggy I could just be sitting here fabricating all of it. Like, I don’t know. I don’t. For all I know, I could have just flipped out.”

Erickson does manage, however, to implicate Ryan Ferguson, claiming that his then high school friend strangled Heitholt. But he can’t remember how Ryan Ferguson choked his victim, offering four different versions — hands, shirt, bungee cord or possibly a rope. He seems to express surprise when the interrogating officer tells him the murder weapon was Heitholt’s belt.

“Really?” Erickson asks.

By the time trial rolled around more than a year and a half later, Erickson had cut a deal with prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to second-degree murder, robbery and armed criminal action, and accept a 25-year prison sentence in exchange for testifying truthfully against Ryan Ferguson. By then, all the ambiguity was gone.

“Why did you plead guilty?” asked Kevin Crane, the county prosecutor trying the case in 2005. “Because I’m guilty,” Erickson replied from the witness stand.

“As the memory of this murder has progressed, you have talked about it to various people … you expressed uncertainty to friends as you talked about this murder, these memories, and uncertainty to the police. What is your level of certainty today?” Crane asked.

“I’m 100 percent certain that me and Ryan Ferguson committed this crime,” Erickson replied without hesitation or rationalization.

Then Crane gave Erickson a chance to back out: “You know, if you didn’t do this, tell me now. You know I’ve told you before I have no interest in putting anybody that didn’t do it in jail … Tell us now if it was all a dream.”

Erickson’s response, even as it appears in a sterile transcript, pounds out a ringing indictment of his friend Ryan. “I did this. He did this. I didn’t dream anything.”

Scour the website of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau — “the definitive guide” to the city’s attractions and accommodations — and you’ll not find a word about one of the most intriguing tours in town. It’s the one led by Bill Ferguson, who says he’ll walk anyone through the crime scene where Heitholt was murdered, because once completed they’ll realize there’s no way his son — or Erickson, for that matter — could have committed the crime. Over the years, Ferguson says he has shepherded some 75 “guests,” starting them at First and Broadway, where the nightclub By George once stood, and then following the path the police and prosecutor alleged the boys took to the crime scene in the Tribune parking lot. The timeline, according to Ferguson, is just too narrow, too illogical and too short to have allowed a couple of teenagers to pull off such a violent, sanitary crime, leaving almost no evidence.

Ferguson suggests a tour time as the sun is setting, to avoid the summer heat. Over the next several hours he leads the way through streets and alleys and parks, his patter authoritative and expressive like that of other guides throughout the world who possess the most arcane facts and can spew them relentlessly with hardly a breath.

What’s clear is that Ferguson doesn’t want any guest to leave without a full dose of disbelief. He’s now media-savvy enough to know that publicity that raises doubts about his son’s conviction cannot hurt. A CBS “48 Hours” documentary (“Dream Killers”) several years ago drew national attention to one of Columbia’s most bizarre murder cases ever. The “48 Hours” crew is ready to follow up with another episode as the case continues to wend its way through the courts.

For someone who has generated such a public profile, Bill Ferguson can be private too. Despite a number of requests, he declines to allow visits to his home where he keeps much of the materials he’s accumulated. But he’ll share that material on DVDs that he prepares and delivers, and he’ll agree to meetings with reporters in a study room of the Columbia Public Library. Each time, he dutifully hands a librarian his driver’s license, and his familiarity with the people and the place suggests he’s held many of these meetings amid the stacks of books.

It’s not difficult to come up with literary references to describe what Ferguson has experienced over the past 6½ years. “Kafkaesque” is an obvious modifier. Derived from the tortured plots of Franz Kafka’s novels, the term connotes nightmarish complexity often linked to blind and oppressive bureaucracy that can devour innocents. Unfamiliar with the machinations of the court system, Ferguson concedes he often didn’t recognize the pitfalls until it was too late. When it comes to his son’s case, he has very little good to say about the police, investigators, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, jurors or prison officials, all of whom he says have failed to attend to the injustice that he sees so plainly.

That perspective has turned him into an Ahab of sorts, only Ferguson’s Moby Dick is the criminal justice system, the gargantuan whale he intends to one day vanquish in order to free his son. The irony is that the same system that has kept Ryan locked up for more than six years is the one he must rely on to rescue him as well. The solution, as he sees it, is to maintain tight-fisted control and oversight in order to head off mistakes that scuttled his son’s chances in the past. So, now he micromanages, staying on top of every development and parsing new facts as they emerge with the exquisite scrutiny of a watchmaker.

When the criminal justice system makes a mistake, it’s like a plane crash, only there’s no black box to help anyone figure out what went wrong. Like an aircraft that’s assembled with thousands of parts, a case against a suspect is built from the ground up, constructed from bits of evidence where each bit helps build a path to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. What seems like an unfathomable, hyper-technical process has evolved over time as a mechanism for assuring as best humans can that only the guilty are punished.

Because the system works so hard to protect an individual’s rights, it’s largely unforgiving when someone tries to prove a wrongful conviction after the fact. But that doesn’t mean mistakes don’t happen, or that people are not successful in winning their freedom if they’re persistent — and innocent.

New York City’s Innocence Project, a nationally prominent legal aid clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University, reports that there have been 258 exonerations based on DNA evidence alone in the United States. The individuals involved in those cases served a total of 3,281 years, with average time served about 13 years each. Seventeen of the prisoners freed had served time on death row, and 19 of them somehow pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit. This last statistic is not one lost on Ferguson, who insists the real murderers of Kent Heitholt remain fugitives despite Erickson’s confession.

Bill Ferguson is a very nice man. Engaging, intelligent, articulate, well read, worldly, intense, friendly, adventurous and kind-hearted, he’s a man who’s easy to like. Since Ryan’s arrest, the same likable man has grown obsessed, zealous, overly analytical, intrusive, distrusting and hypercritical. Those more intense characteristics he attributes to his early gullibility, when he believed that the way to handle something like this was to turn things over to a competent defense attorney and let the legal system protect his son from harm. “I was naïve and trusting, and now I’m demanding accountability,” he says.

Ferguson both fits and breaks the mold of a person born and bred in the Midwest. A spry and fit 65-year-old, he sells real estate when he’s not working as a gumshoe on his son’s case or playing basketball. Born in Raymondville, some 50 miles south of Rolla, his parents owned a farm in nearby Houston, Mo., where he spent his childhood.

When he received a football scholarship to the now-defunct Kemper Military School and College at 17, Ferguson trundled off to Boonville and by 1965 had earned an A.A. degree. But when he dropped out of Drury College after one semester when his “wild side” ascended, the Army stepped up and drafted him in 1966.

That’s when the military-style training he received at Kemper turned him into a standout during basic training. At graduation, when he received the American Spirit Honor Medal, his doubting father asked his mother, “What are the odds that the winner would have the same name as our son?” She had to tell him the winner was their son.

Following his stint in the military, Ferguson ended up in Columbia, where he finished college and earned a master’s degree in education administration at the University of Missouri. By 1975, the 30-year-old had married and with his new wife Leslie, began his first odyssey. For the next 10 years, the couple traversed Europe, crossed the Mediterranean into Africa and spent a year driving through the continent, only to end up in the Australian outback where they ran schools for indigenous Aborigines. Their daughter Kelly was born in a tiny outpost called Docker River, with only a local midwife there to assist. Ryan was also born in Australia.

“I had a theory called the ‘psychological trap’ when I was an undergraduate,” says Ferguson, explaining that decade of his life. “It’s 2.2 kids, a dog called Spot and a white picket fence and you’re never going anywhere because you’re making payments.”

Back in Columbia by the mid-‘80s, the family finally settled into the more mundane existence they had rejected earlier. A year before Ryan’s arrest the Fergusons separated, although they’ve not divorced. Neither one will talk about how a relationship forged in the crucible of adventure and wanderlust ultimately ended, but they both agree that the challenges of freeing their son have brought them closer together. Leslie now handles outreach to supporters who want to communicate about the progress of the case, and Bill handles everything else.

Ferguson can recite a litany of things his lawyers should have, could have, or would have done had they’d only finished their homework. He has gone through so many attorneys, however, that there are lawyers who would balk at taking him on, because of what they may perceive as his obtrusive and unmanageable behavior. Ferguson says he’s had no choice, because if he didn’t step up, no one else would.

The first attorney, Scott McBride, a former public defender, came highly recommended, and when they first met, Ferguson says, McBride dazzled him with his eagerness to begin ferreting out the facts. But over time, they ended up in a tussle over the trial schedule, and the family decided to find someone new.

Charlie Rogers took over the case in the months before the trial began in October 2005. A prominent Kansas City defense attorney, he has practiced law in Missouri since 1976. Today, he is the one who bears most of Ferguson’s wrath for failing his son both before and during trial.

Ferguson uses a boudoir metaphor to describe what it’s like to retain lawyers and then see them fail to come through: “Once you’re up in the bedroom and you’ve taken off your clothes and the cigarettes come out, is this the same person that was romancing you?”

He produces a list of 20 mistakes he says Rogers made during his handling of the case, and then he describes many more, recounting so many that it would take pages to fully describe the implications of them all. Some of them ended up in a motion to vacate Ryan’s guilty verdict and sentence based on the ineffective assistance of counsel, none of which were ultimately sustained by the trial court or on appeal.

Rogers isn’t surprised that Ferguson is bitter, but he is disappointed that his former client feels that way. “The verdict was devastating to all of us,” Rogers says, “But there is no question that Bill was upset and disappointed with the outcome. It was traumatic.”

Even Rogers concedes that there were some mistakes. He acknowledges that some key witnesses weren’t called, and inaccuracies in a map he sought to use turned into an embarrassment in front of the jury. But he denies he blew the trial, and places the blame for Ryan’s conviction at the feet of the jury, “one of the least educated” he says he’s ever experienced.

“This is the kind of case where you want a smarter jury,” Rogers says. “There are cases where you want to blow some smoke but this was not one of those cases.”

Ferguson says that when Rogers told him it was the dumbest jury he’d ever seen, he retorted “it was your job to educate them.” Rogers says he doesn’t recall that conversation, but in retrospect he now acknowledges, “I obviously failed in educating them sufficiently.”

Documents in the court file allege a series of inadequacies. For instance, Rogers failed to subpoena one of the key investigating officers for trial, and by the time he realized the oversight, the detective had left the state on vacation. Officer Todd Alber had handled the K-9 police dog that picked up the scent of the alleged perpetrators, but he never testified at trial. Witnesses that could have been called in Alber’s absence, meanwhile, had been left off the witness lists, so they couldn’t be called either.

More importantly, Rogers is alleged to have failed to determine that one of the Tribune janitors at the crime scene the night of the murder, Shawna Ornt, could have testified affirmatively that she didn’t see either Ryan Ferguson or Chuck Erickson in the parking lot. But Rogers never asked her the question, either during a deposition or at trial.

The motion also claimed Rogers failed to impeach the trial testimony of the Tribune janitor, Jerry Trump. Early on in the case, Trump told police that he couldn’t make out any of the features of the assailants, so he wasn’t even asked to help with the police artist’s composite sketches. By the time of trial, however, Trump testified that he’d been able to identify both men from a picture in the Tribune, one he received from his wife while imprisoned for a crime unrelated to this case.

More than a year after the trial, Ferguson says he spoke to Trump’s wife, Barbara, and she denied ever having sent the newspaper. It’s one example where Ferguson’s exuberance may have undermined key testimony. After their conversation, Barbara Trump claimed she didn’t recall her conversation with Ferguson; his intervention likely compromised her testimony.

Another key witness, Dallas Mallory, a person Erickson told police he and Ryan Ferguson encountered after the murder, was never deposed or called as a witness. Mallory, according to the motion filed with the court, would have denied ever seeing the pair.

Other witnesses and documents could have established that By George closed at the legal time of 1:30 a.m. on the night of the murder. That testimony would have cast a shadow of reasonable doubt on the motive for the crime, a robbery to get money for more drinks.

“I would have very been happy had the motion court decided OK, Rogers, you blew the case and Ryan gets a new trial,” Rogers says. “Getting a new trial for Ryan would have assuaged any hurt feeling about being ineffective.”

Memory is one of the most controversial subjects to ever polarize psychiatrists and psychologists during the 1990s. Ground zero for the controversy was the 1989 publication of The Courage to Heal, a book that sought to expose the silent scourge of sexual abuse, often by family members. What followed was a rising tide of victims, mostly women, who began to recover memories of abuse from earlier years. Families exploded in conflict as both criminal and civil prosecutions accused mostly men of sordid sexual misdeeds the accused often claimed were false. In some states, the stories were so convincing that legislatures passed reforms to extend the statute of limitations to allow more court interventions.

A backlash resulted in a new pathology called “false memory syndrome.” According to its proponents, unskilled therapists or those with a feminist agenda implanted memories of sexual abuse that were not true.

A 1998 book that chronicled the controversy, Memory, Trauma, Treatment and the Law, described a savage debate: “Advocates at one extreme essentially claim that therapists are brainwashers, while extremists on the other side counter that false-memory adherents are pedophiles and pedophile protectors.”

It was out of this milieu that psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, now at the University of California-Irvine, emerged as one of the most prominent memory researchers. An expert on implanted and false memories, she has testified in scores of cases throughout the years. But when she came to testify in Columbia on behalf of Ryan Ferguson, a scheduling snafu left her stranded at the airport the day before she took the stand.

Now she sits in a pleasant café on her campus, enjoying lunch and the California sunshine. When she talks about the Ferguson case, she notes how different it is from the others she has seen. This acknowledgment that she’d never experienced a case like this one is pretty significant. The problem, she says, is that although there is evidence to support the defense’s claim that police detectives implanted a significant number of the facts that Erickson so assertively testified to on the stand, there is no explanation as to why he independently began to surface recollections without any prompting or apparent cause.

“Through me or another expert,” Loftus says, “Rogers probably needed to develop a scenario of why Erickson himself initiated the idea and would run with it when it was so counter to his self-interest.”

What the jury couldn’t figure out, therefore, was why they shouldn’t believe the shackled, stripe-suited Erickson with a self-inflicted 25-year prison sentence when he said that Ferguson helped him murder Kent Heitholt.

Kathryn Benson is a former public defender, a holdover from the Scott McBride days. Ferguson had asked her to stay on the defense team to aid the transition when Rogers took the helm. Now a private defense counsel, the feisty, articulate Benson speaks with the confidence borne of someone who has a handle on things.

“The expert [Loftus] was such a tremendous mistake it’s not even funny,” she says. Rogers likely didn’t know much about Loftus, she says, but Crane acted as if he’d read everything she’d written.

“She turned into a witness for the state,” Benson says.

Ultimately, Loftus’ testimony “was a nightmare,” she says. “I think that it made the jury think that the defense was desperate.” Juries tend toward suspicion when experts are flown in from California, she adds, so “it has to be a valid point and a very credible person. Her prior statements and publications were turned against her completely and that was a mistake, or we weren’t aware of the limitations of what she could say and that they could be twisted. It was terrible.”

So, without a reason to disbelieve Erickson’s convicted confession, the “uneducated” jury pronounced Ryan Ferguson guilty on Oct. 21, 2005.

To get a flavor of the convoluted path that Ferguson claims leads to Ryan’s innocence, the family’s website — www.freeryanferguson.com — is required reading. Among the hodgepodge of videos, news reports, maps, case narratives, trial transcripts, blogs, case documents, news flashes and public announcements, it’s easy to get lost in its combination of logical analysis and vitriol against the legal system. Ask Ferguson a question about the case, and he’ll say the information is on the site, but sometimes he needs to look for it.

What he has accumulated over the years, is a Wikipedia-like resource whose transparency he hopes will garner public support for his son’s release. Within its amateurish links, he illuminates the many failures of the people who were supposed to be trusted to dispense truth and justice. When it comes to the police and the prosecution, Ferguson goes even farther, accusing them of knowingly manipulating Erickson and concealing the truth in order to finally pin Heitholt’s murder on someone.

Kevin Crane, now a Boone County Circuit Court judge, was the county prosecutor when he tried Ryan Ferguson for Heitholt’s murder. He is hesitant to talk about the trial, because he doesn’t see the point of a public debate with Ferguson, and in his current position he’s reluctant to do anything that may prejudice the case.

But he bristles when he hears allegations of wrongdoing on his part, so he’s unabashed in describing his decision to bring Ryan Ferguson to trial.

“This was a tough case. I wasn’t trying it for fun or trying it for glory,” he says. “It would have been a lot easier not to have the case. I was just doing my job.”

His job, he now says, was to present the case to the jury and let them decide.

“Ultimately what I think — and obviously I wouldn’t be prosecuting the guy if I didn’t think he was guilty — what I think in the end and my belief that he’s guilty isn’t what’s relevant,” he says. “What I think is relevant is what the jury decided.”

What riles Crane is that Ferguson, the media — including the “48 Hours” crew that filmed a TV documentary on the trial — and even defense attorneys take snapshots of events out of context.

“When you make judgments about any given aspect of the trial, it’s a little bit of a fiction to do that without taking into account the entirety of the evidence,” he says. “My point is that the jury was present to see all of the problematic aspects of the case. I was very upfront — there was no physical evidence, there were no fingerprints, no DNA.”

Crane insists that the jury was able to evaluate Erickson for hours, both under direct and cross-examination. That was true for all the witnesses in the case, too, and when everything was said and done, the jury reached a unanimous decision.

Criticism continues to irk Crane. “Taking small aspects of the case and saying that I’m a crook, that bothers me,” he says. “I’ve always been ethical.” Allegations raised in recent appellate proceedings that the police and prosecutor knew Erickson was testifying falsely “is just a complete lie,” Crane says.

Jeff Nichols, a detective in the major crimes unit who helped investigate the Heitholt murder has no regrets about his conduct either. Nothing that has occurred since the trial has changed his mind. “In my opinion, the jury found sufficient evidence to render a verdict and it happened to be guilty,” Nichols says, his tone considered and unemotional. “We have such a volume of cases, we just move on and we don’t even look back and wonder not even when things change. And if that makes me look callous or insensitive, so be it.”

The case against Ryan Ferguson has progressed so far that much of what his father still criticizes is no longer relevant other than as ammunition when he argues for his son’s innocence. In the years since the conviction, appeals and post-conviction hearings have rendered most of Ferguson’s criticisms moot. A September decision by the Western District Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s refusal to order a retrial based on the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence favorable to the defense, and on ineffective assistance of counsel. What’s next is a habeas corpus petition that will be heard by a Cole County judge because Ryan is incarcerated in Jefferson City. In that proceeding, however, the defense will have to offer new information.

Justice doesn’t come cheap. Bill Ferguson has spent approximately $200,000 on attorneys, investigators and other costs thus far, and he acknowledges he’s nearing the end of his financial rope. His current attorney, Kathleen T. Zellner from Oak Brook, Ill., is working the case pro bono, convinced that Ryan is innocent and committed to his release. She is the first attorney in whom Ferguson expresses unconditional confidence, which says a lot since she is the eighth lawyer to represent Ryan. There’s a chance she will be the last.

Zellner’s credentials include multiple exonerations of wrongfully convicted individuals. In 2000, the National Law Journal selected her as one of the top 10 litigators in the United States. She is tall, poised, articulate, unflappable and convincing when she appears before the Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City. She lost that first round, although she says she expected that result.

When Ferguson talks about her, it’s the only time he reveals humility and deference in his voice. Most of the time, he sounds as if he believes he’s smarter and more canny than nearly everyone. But when he mentions Zellner’s name, his tone changes and it’s easy to tell that when she talks, he listens.

In exchange, Zellner likes Ferguson, too. But she laughs when she speaks of his exuberance.

Zellner is upbeat but no optimist when it comes to handicapping her chances to free Ryan. She won’t talk about the allegations she’ll raise in the habeas corpus petition she’ll file within the next several months, but they’ll be substantial and new, she promises. She recognizes that things have not gone well for Ryan; he’s running out of options.

There are a couple of issues she can discuss; the most important is Erickson’s retraction last November of his claim that Ryan participated in the murder. How that new evidence will play out is critical, because without Erickson, there’s no case left, she says.

In addition, new DNA testing techniques developed since Heitholt’s murder could help exonerate Ryan as well, although the state has not been cooperative in agreeing to the tests, she says. It appears the courts will have to order it.

“What we’re not going to do is just slap this thing together and file it,” Zellner says. “Everything else has failed and if it takes us some more months, we’ll take them. There are things that need to be better. This case is full of rushing and hoping that it works and I’m not doing that.” Ultimately, she adds, it’s “going to take something huge to undo this case.”

Ryan Ferguson spends his days at the Jefferson City Correctional Institute, working hard to comply with all the rules so that he can keep the privileges he has taken years to earn: food visits from family, a job, phone calls, a girlfriend from Ohio who comes to visit occasionally.

He has matured in prison, wise in ways that likely account for his survival. It’s not easy to be a clean-cut, middle-class kid in jail. When he works out, he realizes he is the only one with no tattoos. He loves his father, and his mother, too. Without them, he says, he knows he would be lost. He describes his imprisonment as a disease, and no one’s fault — just something to be handled. He says he’s sorry his parents have to spend the time on his case, but he’s deeply appreciative, understanding that this is what parents do for their children.

After meeting Ryan, leaving him behind in the prison is unexpectedly sad.

“Yes,” says his father. “Leaving him. It’s the hardest thing.”

Watch the 48 Hours Mystery Video of “Dream Killers” – A teenager dreams that he killed a man, but, did he really commit murder? Correspondent Erin Moriarty reports.