By Danny Peary
Dream/Killer fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. For now, Andrew Jenks’s fascinating and disturbing documentary about our faulty justice system is playing on the festival circuit. Thirty-year-old Ryan Ferguson was one of the nicest people I met at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. After I interviewed him and his father, Bill, Ryan and I ran into each other a few minutes later and we chatted about basketball and life in Florida. He was polite, cheerful, and so easy to hang out with, that I was almost tempted to take him up on his offer to play hoops with him and his dad sometime. Our conversation was like any other I’d have with a cool, respectful, and likable thirty-year-old sports fan. In fact, I momentarily forgot that not long before, as the movie details, Ryan spent nearly ten years in a Missouri prison on a trumped-up murder charge, and that if his amateur-detective father hadn’t devoted his life to finding evidence to help celebrated Chicago lawyer Kathleen Zellner overturn the conviction, Ryan would be in prison for another thirty years. What I still find amazing, a month after meeting Ryan and doing the following interview with him and the remarkable Bill Ferguson, is that he seems stable rather than tortured that he was deprived of a third of his life, and that he bears no ill feelings toward the witnesses who were manipulated into lying about him in court, including his friend, Chuck Erickson. Still in prison because of his coerced confession, Erickson said on the stand that he remembered how he and Ryan murdered Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt—but more likely it was something he dreamed. Any anger Ryan and Bill have is reserved for then-D.A. Kevin Crane who, with help from a few deceitful police officers, framed Ryan in order to get a conviction in the high-profile case and be in line for a judgeship. If Bill is the hero of his movie, then certainly Crane is the villain.
Danny Peary: You two received a standing ovation at the world premiere of Dream/Killer here at the Tribeca Film Festival. Why do you think people were so moved by your story?
Bill Ferguson: I think the movie resonated with the audience. They could see that Ryan had been badly ill-treated and that the judicial system in Ryan’s case was exposed as being corrupt. Ryan, I think what really resonated was our connection and fight together, that you and Mom and I and our family said that what happened to you was unacceptable and that we were going to change this and get you justice. We were going to do the right thing and fight together—that to me was the most important thing. That’s what’s so meaningful to me, and I think that’s a beautiful thing you don’t see that very often. Unfortunately a lot of family members aren’t there for one another, and I don’t know how people get through this life without their families because I certainly couldn’t.
DP: Ryan, at the screening, how hard was it for you to watch this movie?
Ryan Ferguson: It was pretty difficult, specifically watching the trial. That was the worst week of my life. I really didn’t think there would be a trial, because I still believed in the legal system. I was sure they would just look at the facts and say, “This guy’s innocent, there’s no case, let him go.” But then I end up in trial, and it’s like I was in a fishbowl, and these people are looking at me like I am some kind of creep, a shark, you know. And I’m this completely normal person sitting there and if I had lunch with anyone on the jury and it would have been fine, but they were all looking at me with this disgust. And every camera was on and people are trying to take away your life. To go back and watch that was the hardest part. It brought up so many emotions.
DP: As a viewer, it was heartbreaking to see titles come up on the screen saying you had been in prison two years, five years…then nine years. Bill, you lived those years one long day at a time, always giving Ryan encouragement. But when you were alone, did you have lots of moments of despair, or were you really exactly the way you portrayed yourself to him?
BF: I think that is the case. What energized me was that I kept finding new evidence, new police reports, new information, new research. Then I would go to the prison and I would share that with Ryan and we would plan what was going to happen the next week, where I was going to go, who I was going to interview, what I’d discover at the crime scene. So our new strategy kept us going.
DP: But it took almost ten years.
BF: That’s true, there’d be periods of time that not much would be going on. I’d be waiting to hear back from some people or whatever. Still I don’t think I ever reached a low point.
RF: I don’t think we ever allowed each other to get to a very low point. We had very frustrating days when we were very upset, and we’d start getting low, but then we stopped. What’s really interesting–and there’s no way to convey how important this was– is that my father came to the prison every week and my mother came every week and we spent a tremendous amount of time together, so we felt like we had a fight, we had some control, and we could continue our research and find more facts and prove my innocence. And any time we didn’t have anything to discuss about the case, we would make sure we were in a good place mentally, by talking about doing good things and growing together.
DP: If you had a terrible, terrible, day, would you tell your parents?
RF: Absolutely. There were certain things I wouldn’t bring up, because there’s no need for them to fear for my safety unnecessarily–if something bad happens it happens. But yeah, most things I would definitely discuss because I knew that they could deal with it, and I knew that if I didn’t talk to them about it, I probably wouldn’t be able to deal with it. Thankfully I had that with my family. I don’t know how prisoners make it without their families. I’m very impressed with the guys in prison who have no family support and are still sane. Because without my mom and dad I would have given up.
DP: You say in the film that you were able to get along with even the toughest prisoners because you were a good basketball player.
RF: That’s right. It broke down barriers. My father and I used to play basketball and when I’d play he was there with me, in every bounce of the ball We still play together–you should play with us!
DP: What percentage of the other prisoners that you met said they were innocent?
RF: It wasn’t a high percentage, actually. It was less that I would have suspected. I met thousands of guys in there, and maybe a hundred said they were innocent. And a lot of guys that I became close with, especially in higher-level camps, admitted to the crimes that got them imprisoned but had difficulty dealing with the fact that they had done the crimes and how they had ruined their lives. They were always trying to better themselves. They took responsibility, they wanted to grow and get past it, and were looking forward to going out into real life and doing productive things.
DP: Ryan says he believed in the justice system before he was arrested in 2001. Did you?
BF: Not completely. I’m a curious person and I consider myself an amateur, armchair historian. I’ve always been interested in the justice system and read a lot about it, and I always knew that it was imperfect. I knew about all these cases when innocent people were found guilty. So when this happened to Ryan, I was not surprised. And I knew we had to take action immediately.
DP: Do you believe that Kevin Crane, the D.A. who built the false case against you, thought you were innocent and didn’t care?
BF: Here’s what happened with Crane. Whenever the detectives arrested Ryan and Chuck for murder, they told Crane that they had their fingerprints, although they did not. They said they had blood to match Ryan and Chuck’s, which was untrue, and they said they had the car spotted at the scene.
DP: So it was one lie after another.
BF: It was all assumptions. And they said, “We have eye witnesses.” So to Crane it seemed like a slum-dunk, they’re definitely guilty. But then, as it went through the process, they started making discoveries that made it harder to prosecute. For instance, they found out that their eye witnesses, until they manipulated them, could not identify Ryan. Also, the fingerprints didn’t match, the DNA did not match, so there was no evidence to convict them. Crane was at the point that he’d either drop the case or go forward. He had this decision to make, and he decided to go forward, and that’s when he started coercing Jerry [a convicted child molester] to lie. That’s when he started creating false police reports in order to make Chuck [who had suffered a blackout at the time of the murder] confess that he and Ryan committed the murder.
DP: Obviously Crane had experience railroading people into jail by creating false evidence and bringing in bullied or manipulated eye witnesses to lie.
RF: Just another day at the office.
BF: He’s good at what he does. He’s very good.
DP: And now he has been rewarded with a judgeship. Could you have done anything different at the original trial besides hiring a better lawyer?
BF: Well, that would have been helpful right off the bat if we had done that.
RF: But there’s no way we could have known that he wasn’t a good lawyer.
BF: We’ve had people in similar situations contact us and we tell them that the key to your solving the case is to get hold of the discovery. If it goes to trial, you’ve got to get the trial transcript. Then you’ve got to take that information and dissect it, and make a timeline and timeframe, and then you put it all that together. Then you’ll see who the witnesses are and who you need to follow up with. You ask: What part of the story doesn’t make sense? What’s missing? If you do that, all the information will percolate to the top and you can start to solve the case.
DP: We are told that in our justice system there is “the presumption of innocence.” But it’s interesting that the reality is: you’re innocent until you’re arrested.
BF: That’s right. I haven’t heard that before.
RF: Me, either. It’s true.
BF: I like that. Unfortunately.
DP: And how do you prove you’re innocent once you’ve been found guilty?
RF: They don’t want to hear it. Any witness that is for your side is not credible. Any witness for the state is incredibly credible.
DP: And they get the worst witnesses.
RF: Right, and they’re supposedly credible. But a little old lady, she’s not credible? She had a bad day or something like that?
DP: You had the one reliable female eye witness who would have said on the stand if asked, “That’s not him.” But your bad lawyer was afraid to ask her if you were the person she saw. Do you think her not being able to identify you would have been enough to get you off, looking back?
RF: I think that when the detectives chose to falsify the police reports and convinced Chuck to lie on the stand, that was when it ended. The case was over at that point, it didn’t matter what anybody else said at that point. Because they had Chuck believing he committed a crime and had him pointing a finger at me for being his accomplice—and the jury just couldn’t see beyond that.
BF: What people really don’t realize is that once you’ve been arrested and interrogated, they’re not interested in justice any more, they’re only interested in what’s going to support the prosecution in getting a conviction. There was a person that would have been a better suspect, but since they’d already arrested Ryan and Chuck, they decided not to pursue him. They went in the other direction.
DP: Ryan, you forgive Chuck?
RF: I do. Chuck and Jerry were lied to, threatened, and manipulated by the authorities. When they testified against me, they had a lot to gain—literally less jail time and their own freedom at some point. And then when they chose to come forward, because of their consciences, and admit that they lied, they knew they might be subjecting themselves to thirty years in prison for perjury. There’s nothing more powerful than that.
DP: Did you always forgive him? Or did it take a lot of time?
RF: I’m very pragmatic, so once Chuck admitted that he had lied on the stand, I forgave him, because I knew that ultimately the authorities were responsible for my going to prison–not Chuck or Jerry. They are victims as well, both of them.
DP: After your release, you ended up moving from Missouri to Florida.
RF: Yeah, it’s unfortunate that I can’t live in Columbia and I can’t live with my father. I love that town and a lot of the people in it, but I could never be comfortable there, again.
DP: But why Florida, which also has a dreadful judicial system?
RF: I have family in Florida, so that’s why I’m there.
DP: Andrew Jenks, the director of Dream/Killer and I talked about the burden he had those times when he spoke to you while you were in prison. He didn’t want to give you too high expectations in regard to his film. Were you thinking, this documentary is going to get me the attention I need to get me out of jail? Or had you been in prison for so long and suffered enough setbacks that you didn’t have high expectations on anything?
RF: The latter. You already know. You have it down perfectly. There’s that level. No highs, no lows. To survive, that’s where you have to end up being, and that’s where I was. After ten years. And so I had no expectations of it helping me get out of prison. Hopefully, now the movie will provide an opportunity to spread awareness about my case and other cases, so we can change the legal system. It helps me and it helps others, that’s it.
DP: Bill, are you doing more work for others like you did for your son?
BF: I am and it’s amazing. I do think I have a knack for this. I’m working on about three cases now, and I’ve got ten other people calling me but I have to tell them that I just don’t have the time. They think I can solve the their cases immediately, but of course it takes time. And I actually have a real job. One case Ryan and I worked on it together and appeared with the gentleman in court. And he’s free now.
DP: What is it like being at the TriBeCa Film Festival, weird or great?
RF: It has been pretty amazing to me. I love New York, I love the people, I love education, and I feel like people at TriBeCa are passionate about life and want to learn more and grow more. I love being in this kind of environment.
BF: It’s been part of a door opening and more and more regular people being able to see that there are problems with the justice system.