Face to face with Charles Erickson A new push for freedom

Erickson in 2019

BOWLING GREEN - Charles Erickson is making a new push for his freedom.

He has a new lawyer and a new story about his connection to the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Erickson has spent almost 15 years in prison for Heitholt's murder.

He initially confessed to the 2001 killing, but now contends he was unduly pressured by investigators - and others.

"I know I was coerced," he told KOMU 8 News. "I was coerced by the police, by the prosecutor, by my own attorney." (Watch interview)

Erickson filed a petition on Dec. 11 in Pike County, where he is being held at the Northeast Correctional Center. He is seeking a writ of habeas corpus, a legal method to determine whether detainment is lawful or not. 

In 2004, Erickson pleaded guilty to killing Heitholt and implicated his Rock Bridge High School friend, Ryan Ferguson, as his accomplice. Ferguson always maintained his innocence, but a jury found him guilty, mainly based on Erickson's testimony.

Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years for second-degree murder and first-degree robbery.

"In accordance with the jury's verdict, the court would fix punishment at 30 years for count one and 10 years for count two," said Boone County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Roper.

Ferguson was ordered to serve the sentences back-to-back. His defense lawyer requested a retrial, but Roper denied the request.

Judge Gene Hamilton sentenced Erickson to a total 25 years for second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action. Erickson received a shorter sentence because of his testimony against Ferguson.

Years later, Erickson recanted his testimony and said he committed the murder alone. After a high-profile lawyer got involved in the case using Erickson's new testimony, Ferguson's conviction was vacated in 2013 and he was released.

In a face-to-face interview, Erickson said he is glad he helped free Ferguson.

"It's sort of selfish to say it felt good just to know it wasn't on my conscience anymore. It felt good to know that I didn't have someone else like that because I lied and especially, by that time, I was starting to realize, we didn't do this," Erickson said.

Now, Erickson's story has changed again. He hopes to follow Ferguson's road to freedom with a new legal claim of his own.

"Basically, what I'm trying to do right now is withdraw my guilty plea," he said.

Erickson has a new lawyer who just filed what he admits is a “Hail Mary” attempt. Kansas City-based attorney Landon Magnusson blames Erickson's previous lawyers, cites his client's mental health issues and claims police forced a false confession.

The 98-page petition claims Erickson's "frailties and experiences" made him susceptible to coercion by Columbia police, who, the petition claims, got Erickson to falsely confess and plead guilty.

"Now after almost fifteen years in prison, Charles seeks the same justice as Ryan and petitions this court for a Writ of Habeas Corpus," the document said.

It continues: "The only reason Charles became, and now remains, incarcerated is that aggressive police and prosecutors exploited his vulnerabilities, including his past experiences, psychological disorders, youth, cognitive dysfunction, and substance abuse, to coerce Charles to confess and plead guilty to a crime he did not commit."

The petition says police used several tactics to get Erickson to confess.

"Some of the methods they used included: wrongfully withholding exculpatory evidence, unlawfully fabricating evidence they would use to deceive Charles into falsely believing he committed crimes, and applying unconstitutional pressure that deprived him of the volition and knowledge necessary to offer a constitutionally adequate guilty plea," it says.

The petition concludes Erickson deserves habeas corpus relief to fix the injustice of his wrongful detention due to "a defective guilty plea," and claims Erickson is innocent of the crimes for which he is serving prison time.

He said he now knows he’s innocent.

"There are other people's bloody fingerprints there. That, to me, is the most conclusive you can get," said Erickson.

And, after once saying he committed the crime, now Erickson claims he doesn't have a clear picture of what happened that night.

"I left the club, I went home and I went to sleep. I don't remember going home. My memory hasn't improved any since I went to jail," he said.

While Erickson now vehemently maintains his innocence, he understands it’s hard to believe him because he’s lied in the past.

"Nobody should believe anything I say," he said. "I'm not asking people to believe anything. It's ridiculous. I don't ask my family to believe me. I just say look at the facts in my case."

To get to that point, a judge would need to agree with Erickson's lawyer. Erickson said he wants the trial he was cheated out of.

He has a parole date set for 2023, but he hopes he’s free before that.

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