Striving to achieve and maintain your goals is a continuous struggle people are often forced to contend with throughout their lives. But when those dreams harrowingly clash with someone else’s objectives that cross your path, it becomes devastating when your ambitions are derailed as a result. That important life lesson is powerfully explored in director Andrew Jenks‘ new documentary, ‘Dream/Killer,’ which had its world premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. The film focuses on the wrongful imprisonment of Ryan Ferguson, who was convicted of murder, because of the justice system’s need and dream to solve the high-profile case that garnered national attention. But Ryan and his father, Bill, weren’t afraid to fight back, in order to obtain their goal of vacating the sentence and proving his innocence.
‘Dream/Killer’ shows how in 2005, the 20-year-old Ryan was convicted in Columbia, Missouri, and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 2001 murder of sports editor Kent Heitholt, a crime he did not commit. Ryan’s father, Bill, then embarked on 10-year campaign to prove his son’s innocence. Through various interviews, people close to the case show whether or not they also believe in Ryan’s innocence, including the questionable District Attorney Kevin Crane, the highly-confused witness Chuck Erickson and the high-powered Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner.
While serving nine-and-a-half years of his sentence, Ryan provides a candid and intimate look at his life. Footage from the Ferguson family archive is interspersed with archival footage from when Ryan was initially arrested and questioned by detectives, as well as his court hearings and trial. Between Bill and Zellner’s tireless efforts to prove Ryan’s innocence, his conviction was finally vacated on November 5, 2013, and he was released.
Ryan and Bill generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview about ‘Dream/Killer’ at the Smyth Hotel in New York City, the morning after the documentary had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the documentary’s subjects discussed how they were both interested in making a documentary on their case because they wanted to raise awareness about wrongful convictions, and how the justice system actually works, for the general public; how people can be wrongfully convicted if there isn’t any physical evidence against them, as long as eyewitnesses place them at the scene of the crime, like in Ryan’s case; and how important it is to work with a passionate and dedicated attorney like Zellner, who’s truly concerned about the lives of her clients, and will do whatever it takes to keep innocent people out of prison.
ShockYa (SY): Why were you both interested in chronicling the case in a documentary like ‘Dream/Killer,’ after it has been showcased in different areas of media, including television, newspapers and social media?
Bill Ferguson (BF): We saw it as an opportunity for awareness. The general public, and we were once a member of that group, has no idea how the process works. Now that we know how it does work, and how it failed us, we want the public to be aware of that, so that we can initiate changes.
Ryan Ferguson (RF): For me, it’s also about raising awareness. We realized that we were in a position to show the world what could happen to them. This could happen to my father and any other of our friends and family, and that’s really scary.
This case really shows that possibility to the public, and it’s something that they’ve really been able to grasp onto. Since we have that understanding, we can help others who are in the same situation. I think that’s what it’s all about-helping others, and changing the system so that people like us aren’t convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, or thrown into the justice system unjustly.
I think it’s interesting that we have that opportunity with this film. It’s important to note that it’s our responsibility to get it out there, and share what we know, because we have a voice. There are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily have a voice, but need one and should have one. But for whatever reason, it’s very difficult to get one when you’re being accused of a crime you didn’t commit.
BF: Yes, and it’s also important to go beyond the black-and-white issues, and into the anatomy of what actually happens, like what is a Brady Violation and exculpatory evidence. The public is pretty much unaware of those aspects. So we wanted to explain how they work, why they doesn’t always work and why people are wrongfully convicted.
Prosecutors can withhold exculpatory evidence that would help the defendant. If it’s a Brady Violation, then it’s strong enough evidence that would support the accused, and change the jury’s minds. So those are important issues, but the general public doesn’t know anything about them. We want to make them aware of such situations. That’s how the prosecutors are able to manipulate the system-by hiding evidence.
So if the public’s aware of it, and the prosecutors are aware that the public knows about it, I think we’ll see less abuse. By us exposing this, and raising awareness, we can hopefully help bring about some changes.
SY: The film shows how there wasn’t any physical evidence in your case, and much of the prosecutor’s case was based on eyewitness testimony. How important was it to both of you that the documentary showcased that there was never any physical evidence to support the charges?
RF: I think it was very important. Twelve years ago, we thought like most people-that there had to be some sort of evidence to charge people and take them to trial. We believed in the legal system, basically by default. We’re told that the justice system is there to serve and protect us. All of those nice words are meant to make us feel better. But when you go through it, you know that doesn’t truly exist.
So including that in this story, and showing people that you can be arrested, tried and convicted without any physical evidence, and just with someone pointing a finger at you, even if their story doesn’t make any sense, shows how frightening the system is. In my case, we didn’t know that, so we didn’t know what to do. So we want to show that to other people. So if people can see that they can take your life without any evidence or reason, we can prove that it shouldn’t happen in our society.
BF: Not only that, the other thing that we found to be unbelievable is that there are about 4,200 counties in America, and each one has a county jail. The worst place you can ever go is the county jail. There are people who we know who are in the county jails and are confessing to crimes they didn’t commit, just so they can get out of the jail and go to a better place, which is the state prison. People who are in the county jails are in the worst conditions possible…
RF:…even though they’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
BF: But they’re in worse conditions than if they were convicted, and they didn’t even go to trial yet. That’s hard to believe, but it’s happening all across the country. When you’re in jail, and you’ve never been there, no matter how strong and resolute you may be, you may be compromised to take a plea. You might make up a story and place the blame on another person to get yourself out of that situation. People don’t understand the pressure that’s put on you in a county jail.
People need to be aware that if they have a relative who’s in county jail, they need to do everything to get them out of that jail. It’s a horrific place, even though you haven’t been to trial, or convicted of anything, yet. You’re treated far worse than when you are convicted of being guilty, and go to the state prison.
SY: ‘Dream/Kill’ also shows how the prosecutors twisted the eyewitness accounts to support their case, and overlooked the evidence that would help your defense. Why was it also so important to showcase how damaging that process was to your case?
RF: Well, as Dr. Richard Leo, who testified at one my hearings, would say, once the police put you in interrogation, it’s no longer about getting to the truth; it’s about getting a confession. That’s basically how the legal system operates. If they think they can get a conviction, they’ll build a case against you. They choose to ignore anything that can help prove your innocence. Or, like in our case, they’ll fabricate things, or make things that will be helpful to you disappear.
BF: We also discovered some terms, like the bail conspiracy, which you most likely won’t read anywhere. But the bail conspiracy is when a police officer makes an arrest, and then another officer will interview another person who’s related to the alleged crime. The officers will then write their police report, and mischaracterize the interview, in order to make the accused look even worse. They do that constantly to build their cases.
Like Ryan said, once you’re arrested and in the interrogation, they don’t care about justice or finding the true perpetrator of the crime. They’ve got you, and they’re going to build a case against you. If that means mischaracterizing police reports, they’re going to do that.
What people don’t realize, at least in the state of Missouri, is that when officers write a police report, the person who’s being interviewed doesn’t get to read the report. They also don’t get a copy of the report, or to even sign the report. So that gives the police the opportunity to mischaracterize them in the report, unbeknownst to anybody else. Many times, they don’t even call that person that was mischaracterized in the interview as a witness in court. So no one even knows that interview even happened.
RF: The words in the police report aren’t the words the person being interview told the detectives. That never comes out during the trial.
SY: The film also shows how much research you did, Bill, during the trial, and while Ryan was in jail. Why did you go out and investigate on your own, ow did your research help with the case?
BF: Well, we had eight or nine attorneys during the process, and some were good, and others weren’t so good. One of our attorneys, Kathleen Zellner, was the apex of what lawyers are supposed to be like when they represent you. What we learned was that your lawyer, typically, doesn’t have the luxury of time to follow up on every syllable of every police report. They’ll follow-up on the general information, but there are a lot of things they miss.
So whenever I got my hands on a new discovery, I looked at every syllable. We created a timeline with all of the information, and we wouldn’t leave any rock unturned. But lawyers don’t typically have the time to do that, and it doesn’t fit into their billable hours. They don’t have the time, because they want to go onto the next case.
If you want to solve these cases, you have to put a lot of time. The only people who have that time are the loved ones, because they only have one case. So that’s why we wanted to do the research. By doing that research, we turned up witnesses and evidence that would have never otherwise come out. We found out things no one else would have found out. It takes a tremendous effort and a lot of time to do that, which lawyers don’t typically have the luxury to do.
SY: Speaking of Kathleen Zellner, who helped you have your conviction vacated, what was your relationship like with her overall?
BF: Well, I don’t know how our relationship could have been any better. She’s what you would think an attorney would be like. She’s smart, passionate and experienced, and she communicates. You can spend a tremendous amount of money to employ an attorney. But if they don’t have passion for your case, than you have nothing. You need an attorney who feels passionately about your case. Once Kathleen takes you on as a client, than you are well-represented. That’s not always the case.
RF: There aren’t many lawyers like Kathleen out there. You can have a great attorney, but many of the ones who are considered great probably don’t have much communication, or a relationship, with their clients. But Kathleen always spoke to us, and she would call my father to talk about the evidence he discovered.
So she spent a lot of time with us, and would help me get through situations, and understand what was going on with the legal process. She’s been a friend to us, and would speak to us on such a humble level. She wouldn’t try to talk over our heads with legal terms we didn’t understand, which a lot of attorneys might do. She gets into the trenches, and fights, with you. She’s not only your friend, but also this amazing and powerful attorney who’s passionate about the cases she’s involved in. She also cares about the legal system, and getting done what’s right for the people she cares about.
BF: When we hired our first attorney, I obviously wanted to get involved. But he said, “No, don’t do anything. I’m the professional, so I’ll take care of everything.”
RF: That’s how it usually goes.
BF: Yes, they usually want you to stay back. But I could see that wasn’t working, so I went out and found some evidence that he never would have come up with on his own. Then I showed him a very incriminating photograph that would have helped us, and he said, “Wow, that’s great. But I don’t know if you should do anything else.”
But with Kathleen, if I found something and gave it to her, she’d said, “Wow, that’s fantastic, Bill. If you can find something else, let me know. Keep looking.” She has such confidence in herself and her abilities that she would allow us to go out and do whatever we needed to do, and then come back and consult with her. But most attorneys are withdrawn…
RF:…and can’t be bothered.
BF: That’s exactly right. They’d say, “Leave everything to us.”
SY: SY: One of the most interesting aspects that’s included in the film is how your family and supporters created the social media campaign, including on Facebook, to raise awareness about the case around the world. What does it mean to the both of you that so many people who don’t know you support you through social media?
RF: That changed my life. For many years, I was down on humanity. Those people who are there to protect us in the legal system took my life, as well as my family’s lives, from us. They’re also hurting the victim’s family. It’s so disturbing to see people do that. Then the community behind them isn’t willing to look at the facts, as they’re just listening to the police’s theories. So you start to lose hope and faith in society and humanity in general, and I lived that way for many years.
I was very fortunate, but I don’t think a lot of guys in my position are, so hopefully we can get more support for them. But many people started to look at the facts of this case, because of my father and our friends and family getting the word out there, and moving the social media so far forward. So many people would write to us and say, “We believe in you. We’ve seen the facts, and know you’re innocent.” As more and more of those people came into our lives, I could see that a great deal of society is passionate about helping others. I needed to see that, and I want to do that now, as well.
BF: The thing that made the difference with the social media, which was very important, was that we wouldn’t make an emotional appeal. We wouldn’t be screaming and crying and getting upset; we would only talk about documented facts. We wouldn’t say anything unless we could prove it was a documented fact.
By putting out videos, crime scene photographs and police reports that were documented, then we gained the trust of the people who were on the blogs and on Facebook. Then that permeated throughout social media, and we obtained more and more interest.
The social media was also supported by ‘Dateline’ and ’48 Hours,’ who both did three programs on the case. Those episodes also reinforced our side of the case, because they were seeing the documentation. So it wasn’t just people thinking, “Oh, this is so terrible,” which doesn’t do any good; you have to have documented facts to support your case, and that’s what helped us.
RF: It also helped that my father’s a walking encyclopedia on the case. Whenever we asked where a piece of evidence was located in the documents, he’d say off the top of his head, “It’s going to be in police report 348.” He’d easily get the document and show people, which helped them understand the case.
BF: What was really neat was when people would ask, “Where does it say that?” I had all that information memorized, so I could easily say, “That’s police report 345, page five, second paragraph.” Then I’d be able to send the report right to them, after highlighting the passage.
SY: This is still an on-going case, like is mentioned in the film, and it encourages anyone who has additional information that could help find the true perpetrator to contact the police. Do you hope the documentary can help bring closure for everyone who was involved?
RF: The film doesn’t only raise awareness about wrongful convictions and the other failures in the legal system; for me, knowing the film’s going to get out there, and bring awareness to the case, is important. In reality, there were two people in the parking lot (at the time of the murder), and they’ve yet to be identified. We’re going to find those people some day, and when we do, I think we’re going to get a lot closer to solving this case. They’re not necessarily the people who committed the crime, and they may be innocent bystanders. The film is one way of getting the word out there, and getting closer to finding them. Ultimately, the goal is to get justice for Kent Heitholt and his family, as they’re the ultimate victims.
BF: Absolutely. It’s so discouraging that the police aren’t actively pursuing the true perpetrators of the crime. They’ve got two guilty people who are free. Ryan’s out now, but there’s another person who’s currently in prison for the crime. The police aren’t doing anything to find the people who are guilty, because they already have someone in prison. They don’t want to find the true perpetrators of the crime, because that shows they didn’t do their jobs correctly. They don’t want to look bad, so they’re going to stop the investigation.
When you see in any of these cases where someone has been exonerated, rarely do the police follow up and pursue the perpetrators of the crime. Since it makes them look bad, they’d rather just forget about the case.
SY: What does it mean to the both of you that the film had its world premiere here at the Tribeca Film Festival? What do you hope audiences can take away from it overall?
RF: For me, it’s been a great opportunity to be here and share it with a very educated group of people. They seem like a compassionate crowd…
BF:…everyone’s very passionate.
RF: The crowds want to learn more about the society and world they live in, and make it better. So to bring this film to this environment, and feel that energy and passion about life, is special. I didn’t know what it was going to be like before I got here, because I’ve never been to Tribeca before, and have never had these opportunities in life. But the overall experience has been incredible.
BF: Yes, there is a tremendous amount of energy here. A lot of people have come up to me after the screening, so that they could speak to me. The five or six people were attorneys, and they wanted to know more about the case, and how I did certain things. They felt bad about how the system works. So I think the awareness this film is generating is going to make a big difference.
If you’re a patent or real estate attorney, for example, you don’t know how the criminal law system works. So the only attorneys who understand this system are criminal lawyers. We’re seeing a lot of attorneys wondering how this happened, which shows how curious people really are about our case.
Written by: Karen Benardello