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Missouri man freed after murder conviction overturned

By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - A Missouri man imprisoned for nearly a decade for murdering a newspaper editor walked free on Tuesday evening, a week after a state appeals court overturned his conviction.

"I did not believe it until they took the shackles off me in Boone County Jail and I was able to hug my mother," Ryan Ferguson, 29, told CNN Wednesday morning, one of several interviews he gave to television networks.

"It was incredibly scary and it was very stressful for the last two hours before that," he said.

Ferguson, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted in 2005 of the second-degree murder and first-degree robbery of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt near his car in the newspaper's parking lot in 2001.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, in an opinion filed last week, found prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have affected an eyewitness's testimony and other evidence that could have worked in Ferguson's favor.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office said it would not retry or pursue further action against Ferguson at this time.

Ferguson, who had been sentenced to 40 years in prison, said he was confident the real killer would be discovered. He said he was preparing for life as a free man.

"I'm ready for anything, really," he told a news conference Tuesday night in Columbia, Missouri, about 120 miles west of St. Louis.

Ferguson and Charles Erickson, two high school juniors at the time, were drinking at a club near the newspaper before Heitholt was killed.

Erickson, who was drunk and blacked out, later told friends he had dream-like memories that he and Ferguson may have killed Heitholt. Erickson ultimately confessed to the robbery-murder and implicated Ferguson.

Erickson pleaded guilty to murder, robbery and armed criminal action and agreed to testify against Ferguson in return for a lesser sentence.

He later recanted his confession and trial testimony, as did the eyewitness, Jerry Trump, a custodian who identified Erickson and Ferguson as being at the crime scene.

Ferguson said on Wednesday he believed Erickson was innocent and should be freed as well.

Prosecutors said Ferguson and Erickson were short on drinking money and turned to robbery. No physical evidence connected the pair to the crime scene, the appeals court opinion said.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by David Bailey and John Wallace)

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