Two days ago, a Missouri man was released from prison after being officially exonerated from a murder conviction for which he has already served 10 years. Ryan Ferguson was convicted in 2005 for the murder of Kent Heitholt on Halloween night in 2001 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. On Nov. 5, the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District vacated Ferguson’s murder conviction, with Judge Cynthia Martin ruling that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial and that “his verdict is not worthy of confidence.” The verdict was undone because Ferguson’s co-defendant recanted his trial testimony in 2012. It still took over a year for the court to take action on Ferguson’s case.
These happy endings have been occurring more and more frequently due to improvements in DNA testing and social media awareness, and the dedicated work of criminal defense attorneys. Here in Colorado, Timothy Masters was exonerated in 2008 after serving over 11 years in prison for the murder of Peggy Hettrick. In 2011, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were released from an Arkansas prison after serving 18 years. Known as the “West Memphis Three,” the three were released after mounting evidence suggested they were not involved in the deaths of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. These are just a few examples of high profile exonerations in recent years.
The legal battles that occur to achieve these results are incredibly long lasting, expensive, and most of the time, futile. This is for good reason. The criminal justice system puts an incredible amount of trust in the hands of jurors to reach a verdict, and once twelve members of the community hear evidence and convict a defendant, the system is designed to protect that verdict from scrutiny. A criminal defendant can always appeal their convictions, but criminal appeals are reserved for questions of law, not fact. For example, a criminal defendant can attack a conviction on appeal on the basis of a judge allowing impermissible evidence to come in, but they cannot attack factual disputes of witness testimony.
There is also an unspoken “faith” pervasive in the criminal justice system that prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys adhere to- we all want to believe that the jury gets it right in the end. Prosecutors want to believe they are prosecuting a guilty person. Judges want to believe that they afford fair trials to all, and that a jury will make sound decisions based on the evidence without improper outside influences. Even defense attorneys want to respect jury verdicts- if their client is found guilty, they console themselves with the knowledge that they provided an excellent defense for the client, but that a jury of their peers decided that their client in fact perpetrated the crime.
High profile exonerations shake that “faith”, and properly so. They are an important reminder that the United States criminal justice system, despite its advantages to other justice systems, is flawed and far from perfect. We all need to be reminded that people’s lives are at stake in this system. Even though it may take time, cost, and seemingly endless resources, we want to make sure that in the end, we get it right.
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