Not only in Missouri, but national media has been led back to the case of Ryan Ferguson. Ferguson, 29, was convicted of the murder of Kent Heitolt, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune. According to Ferguson’s friend Chuck Erickson in a 2004 police confession, both men we’re looking for someone to rob for alcohol money in the early morning hours of Nov. 1st, 2001. They happened upon Heitolt in the CDT parking lot and (allegedly) beat him senseless and strangled him with Heitolt’s own belt. Ferguson was convicted in 2005 to a 40-year term, while Erickson accepted a plea deal for 25 years. However, Erickson retracted his story in April of 2012, stating that his memory of the night was hazy from using various drugs and alcohol. Through appeals court, Ferguson was freed of all charges on Nov. 5th.
Modern society is a culture where an accused is “Guilty until proven innocent.” A vicious and relentless cycle similar to an average episode of Maury: One side of a story is brought up, and the audience is automatically against the enemy of the guest. The enemy of the guest is brought out and is hounded and berated by the audience, even after telling their side of the story that they say is the truth. Granted, most of the instances of accusation are the truthful side of the story. But occasionally, like in the case of Ferguson, the accuser is the liar, and the public (audience) is played for saps.
The truth comes out, whether it’s by a paternity test or an accuser recanting his statement, eventually. When I become a journalist, one of the precautions I would take in a story like this is to be aware of the tone of the story and picture I’m painting in the reader’s head. A few changes in words can make a martyr into a pariah. The power of words can change a man’s life in the eyes of the public forever, even to the day that his name is cleared in the legal system. In some eyes, he’s still the killer.