Friday, January 22, 2016

"Dream/Killer": Andrew Jenks documents the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson based on a acquaintance's "lucid dream" testimony


Dream/Killer” (2015), a documentary by Andrew Jenks, takes on the issue of wrongful convictions, specifically of Ryan Ferguson, now 31, who spent ten years in prison for a murder he did not commit after being named by an acquaintance, Charles Erickson, as a co-accomplice in the attack on a Columbia, MO sports reporter Kent Heitholt on Halloween Night, 2001.  I’ve covered the case in two other posts, on the TV blog Nov. 18, 2013 (a coverage of an NBC Dateline episode, in connection with the Innocence Project) and the Issues Blog, Nov. 14, 2013.

The case is bizarre because Erickson, who did not remember the incident and had been out drinking (underage) and using drugs, and going to parties, accompanied by Ferguson and others, that night.  Apparently the bars and parties were at some distance from where the murder occurred.
 
 Nevertheless, Erickson had some “lucid dreams” and believed he and Ferguson had committed the acts.  He contacted police, who, with prosecutors, manipulated Erickson into a confession and plea deal to testify against Ferguson.

Ferguson maintains he was never even at the scene (was 17 at the time) had lived normally until 2003, giving the murder almost no thought until the arrest came out of the blue.

ABC 20-20 has reported on somewhat similar case in Illinois where a conviction was obtained based on a dream.

There was no physical evidence connecting Ferguson with the crime, and the “eyewitness” testimony used for the conviction was flimsy and later retracted, as the film shows.  The prosecution made some “Brady violations” and withheld information from the defense.

The film focuses on the persistence of Ryan’s father, Bill, to will his freedom.  In time, Bill would hire attorney Kathleen Zellner, who worked pro bono on the case.  A first “habeus corpus” appeal did not work, as the system had to protect itself, but in 2013 the Appellate court in Kansas City vacated the conviction.  Zellner had to use unusual skill and cunning in handling the fact pattern to prevail. It also took a huge public relations campaign, volunteers, and billboard ads to put political pressure on the system and expose it.  Was the win on final appeal just based on the law? Or "solidarity"?  It's disturbing.

The film shows a lot of court footage (I'm surprised recording and public use was allowed), both from the original trial (in smaller aspect) and even police interrogation footage, as well as later appeals footage, with many interviews of both Bill and Zellner as well as one female witness.

There are YouTube videos about efforts to free Charles Erickson, who would also appear to be wrongfully convicted.

The film also shows how Bill and his wife Leslie traveled to northern Europe, Africa, and Australia and used their street smarts to pay their way with odd jobs before coming back to Missouri and having their family.  Bill has a close bond with his children and Ryan grew up to be very athletic.



The director, Andrew Jenks, appeared with Ryan on the Meredith Vieira Show on January 21, 2016.  Jenks said that this kind of set up could happen to almost anyone (as does Zellner near the end of the film).

The official site for the film is here  (Cinedigm).  I rented it for $4.99 HD from Amazon and watched it the morning of the Blizzard of 2016, as everything started shutting down.  The film was an official selection at Tribeca in 2015.
 
The idea that a fictitious narrative (as of a dream) can defame someone and even put someone in criminal peril has been considered on my main blog under the "implicit content label".  Self-libel in fiction is possible and can even be legally dangerous.

Picture: Kansas City Star at night, my visit, 2006.

Update: February 6, 2016

The Washington Post has an editorial about how the adversarial nature of criminal justice tends to lead to wrongful convictions, "The uptick in exonerations highlights problems in our criminal justice system".

Update: April 23, 2016

On April 20, Andrew Jenks appeared with Ferguson on the Meredith Vieira show.  Ferguson said he felt like he had to start life as an adult over at 19. Jenks says this can happen to anyone. (Ferguson appeared alone first, and I tweeted Jenks before realizing he would be on the show.)

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