The year was 2001. A Missouri teenager, who we’ll call Ryan, along with his buddy Chuck, chose to rob and then brutally murder a man. The victim was a well respected newspaper sports editor. Both teens were arrested. In 2005, Ryan went to trial. Chuck was the primary witness against Ryan, detailing how the two committed the crime together. Also, there was fingerprint evidence, eyewitness testimony and bloody footprints, all found at the scene of the crime. Ryan was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Good, that’s what he deserves for the abhorrent premeditated criminal acts.”
Wait, hold the judgment and condemnation. There’s just a few minor problems with this open and shut “hypothetical” case that I’ve laid out for you. All the physical evidence left at the scene didn’t match Ryan. Also, Chuck struggled with critical details about the crime when questioned by police and then later recanted his trial testimony. The eyewitness who claimed that Ryan was at the scene of the murder, also later recanted.
Unfortunately, the “hypothetical” is an actual case. Ryan Ferguson spent ten years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. In spite of Chuck and the sole eyewitness admitting they lied when they testified against Ryan, it still took years and extraordinary work by dedicated appellate attorneys who finally secured Ryan’s freedom. The appeals court overturned Ryan’s conviction based on prosecutors’ withholding of evidence that should have been turned over to his defense attorneys during his trial. A newly appointed special prosecutor has decided not to retry Ryan.
So, Ryan, who was unjustly stripped of his liberty as a teenager, now re-enters the free world approaching his 30th birthday. He’s never sent a text, used Facebook, or had any college education. Fortunately, as he described, he “has his life back.”
I write about his case because it serves as a needed reminder of how innocent people really do get railroaded. It’s not just what happens in cheesy television dramas. Testimonial evidence can be inherently unreliable, as evidenced in this case. Also, I wonder how many other “Ryans” are languishing in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. I also think about how fortunate Ryan was to have the resources, a dedicated family and zealous appellate attorneys who never gave up on him.
Having worked in the criminal justice arena for over twenty years, I’ve seen first hand many cases like Ryan’s, either while serving as a prosecutor and/or while on the defense side. Fortunately, most cases of innocence are caught before a defendant ever is wrongfully convicted and forced to serve lengthy prison terms. However, miscarriages of justice still routinely occur. While I believe our justice system is the best in the world, it still is fallible. Ryan’s case serves as a painful reminder of just that.