COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — After nearly a decade in prison, freedom did not come easy for Ryan Ferguson — not even in the final few hours after the Missouri attorney general decided to not retry him in the 2001 slaying of a newspaper sports editor.
Ferguson was released Tuesday evening. But he first thought he was being sent to solitary confinement when he was told to gather his stuff in his prison cell. Even after his attorney held up a sign through a glass window declaring "It's over," it really wasn't.
Ferguson, 29, changed into civilian clothes then was ordered back into an orange prison jumpsuit to be transported from a state prison to a county jail. He feared he was about to be arrested again for the slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Instead, Ferguson rode to freedom from the jail in the backseat of his father's car — a black sedan emblazoned with a large photo of Ferguson and the words "Wrongfully Convicted. Time for Justice. FREE RYAN."
A week earlier a state appeals court panel overturned Ferguson's conviction, saying the prosecutor's office withheld evidence from his attorneys and that he didn't get a fair trial.
Ferguson's case gained national attention because his high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, claimed to have recalled through dreams years after the fact that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt in a late-night robbery after partying for Halloween. Erickson has since recanted his testimony and remains in prison.
Ferguson was greeted with cheers from dozens of supporters at a news conference Tuesday night inside a hotel ballroom — in a scene that resembled an election night watch party. Wearing blue jeans and a gray sweater over a white-collared shirt, Ferguson walked into the room with a big smile and raised his arms in victory in front of a bank of TV cameras.
He thanked his family, attorneys, his few remaining high school friends and his many new supporters for backing his quest for freedom.
"To get arrested and to get charged for a crime you didn't commit is incredibly easy, and you lose your life very fast," Ferguson said. "But to get out of prison, it takes an army."
Ferguson was a 17-year-old high school junior at the time of Heitholt's slaying. He was convicted in 2005 and had been serving a 40-year sentence for murder and robbery.
Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson. At that trial, Erickson said Ferguson had suggested they rob someone to get money for alcohol and that Erickson had hit Heitholt with a metal tire tool before Ferguson strangled Heitholt with the man's own belt.
But during a 2012 court hearing, Erickson said he had been a heavy drug and alcohol user with hazy memories and had originally been persuaded by police and media accounts into believing he was guilty. Erickson said he no longer was sure of his own involvement and was adamant that Ferguson did not do it.
A panel of the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals later overturned Ferguson's conviction.
Ferguson expressed sympathy Tuesday for Heitholt's family, saying "they've been lied to" by law enforcement authorities who pursued the case against him. He said he felt sorry for Erickson, who had been "used and manipulated" by police and prosecutors.
"I know that he's been victimized — he's an innocent man in prison," Ferguson said.
There was no physical evidence linking Ferguson or Erickson to Heitholt's death. Former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump was the only witness to testify that he had seen Ferguson and Erickson in the newspaper parking lot on the night of the slaying. Trump also recanted his testimony during the 2012 court hearing. But Ferguson's freedom ultimately hinged on the way authorities conducted their investigation.
Last week's appeals court ruling said an investigator in the Boone County prosecutor's office should have shared details about an interview he had with Trump's wife that would have raised questions about Trump's account. The appeals panel cited that as part of a pattern in which prosecutors failed to disclose evidence to Ferguson's attorneys.
Court documents filed by his attorney said Ferguson plans to live with his mother in Columbia and hopes to work for his father, who is a real estate broker. Ferguson said Tuesday that he has nearly finished writing a book about his experiences.
In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Ferguson said he was starting his new life with nothing except the clothes on his back — the same clothes he wore at his news conference the night before.
"I'm going to just remain optimistic and see what happens and if nothing comes down the road, I'm going to create my own opportunities," he said.
Many in the crowd at Ferguson's Tuesday night news conference had never met him but were drawn to his cause by his father's relentless efforts, a social media campaign and national TV news reports.
Margie Kunz, 45, of rural California, Mo., wore a "Free Ryan Ferguson" bracelet on her right wrist. She said that after seeing media reports about Ferguson's case, she befriended his family and contributed $500 to their quest for his freedom.
"I just became convinced that he was innocent — that's when I started getting on Facebook and getting involved," Kunz said.
Follow David A. Lieb at: http://www.twitter.com/DavidALieb .