‘Unlocking the Truth’: Inside MTV’s New True-Crime Show
In 2005, Ryan Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 2001 murder of a newspaper editor in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri. The murder had gone unsolved for two years when police received a tip that a guy named Charles Erickson believed he could be responsible. Erickson didn’t have any memory of the crime, but he became concerned after he had a dream that he and Ferguson, who he had been partying with that night, committed the murder. Interrogated for hours by the police, Erickson finally gave a false confession that implicated Ferguson as well, and later testified against him as part of a plea deal. Erickson eventually recanted his testimony, claiming he had been pressured by police and the prosecutor; two other witnesses recanted as well, and after nearly 10 years in prison, Ferguson was finally exonerated and released in 2013.
Now 31, Ferguson hopes to help others who have been wrongfully convicted with his new MTV show Unlocking the Truth. The documentary series follows Ferguson and Eva Nagao, Director of the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, as they investigate three cases believed to have resulted in wrongful convictions in hopes of finding new evidence that could lead to their exonerations. Unlocking the Truth joins the ever-growing list of true crime infotainment which seeks to expose the litany of issues within the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions, including police and prosecutorial misconduct and false confessions, and the next-to-impossible difficulty in overturning them.
You were sent to prison for 10 years based on Charles Erickson’s coerced false confession stating that the two of you committed a murder that neither of you had anything to do with. Like Erickson, you were interrogated by police for hours, and it was clear that all they wanted to hear from you was that you did it. What was it like knowing the police wanted you to admit to something you did not do?
It was a traumatic experience, certainly. All too often, people look at false confessions and say, “How could this person confess to a crime they didn’t commit?” People don’t get it and can’t get beyond it. But false confessions happen all the time. The question should be “Why is it that a quarter of all DNA exonerations are cases that involved false confessions?”
The Supreme Court allows detectives to lie, threaten and intimidate suspects, and when that person is vulnerable in some way, those tactics very easily instill fear. During those interrogations, they ask the same thing over and over and over and over again. Fatigue sets in. People become tired and afraid, and they just break down. They truly believe that if they just give in a little bit, if they just say what the police want to hear, then they can go home because that’s what the police tell them.
Erickson thought he blacked out that night, so when he didn’t know what happened during the crime, he was susceptible to being manipulated by the detectives. They lied and said people saw him with the victim, and he believed them. He thought, “If these people saw me, then I must have done it.” And then he literally said, “If I did it, Ryan must have been with me.” That’s how my life was taken.
For me, it was never a question. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t going to lie and say that I was. I was not going to tell them something that was not true. I could have sat there for the rest of my life, telling them I had nothing to do with it, and I would have never broken down.
Erickson is still in prison. In addition to his own retracted confession, two other key witnesses from the trial came forward and admitted they lied, which led to your conviction finally being overturned. All of this points to his innocence as well. What will it take for him to be exonerated, too?
I know I took him home that night, and I don’t believe he could have gone back out [to commit the murder]. I believe he’s 100 percent innocent. But Erickson took a guilty plea. And when they trick you into taking a plea, you lose your constitutional right to withdraw that guilty plea. That’s why Erickson is still in prison right now. Because he was susceptible to their tactics, coerced into confessing and taking a plea deal in exchange for testifying again me, he’s lost his constitutional rights. That’s a huge issue that needs to be addressed on a larger scale. And that’s the thing about the show – we talk about the larger systemic issues within the legal system.
Erickson has a new attorney, Trisha Bushnell with the Midwest Innocence Project, which is a great organization. They’re very passionate about what they do and they will find a way to get him justice.
The prosecutor in your case, Kevin Crane – who committed multiple Brady violations – is now a judge. Can we really expect the issues which lead to wrongful convictions to stop if the people who are perpetuating them are not held accountable?
You’re right, we have to have accountability. For police, for prosecutors, for everyone within our legal system. Whenever people with power and authority over another person’s life do something wrong – withhold, manipulate, or fabricate evidence, for example – they should suffer the consequences. Once those people are being held accountable, this will stop. If you give someone ultimate power and ultimate immunity, it’s going to corrupt ultimately. Our legal system has no governing body holding anybody accountable. Until that happens, we don’t have a chance.
But our legal system is evolving. Twenty years ago, they said wrongful convictions didn’t happen, and if it did, it was one in a million. We’re starting to recognize that they happen all the time – as a result, new pathways to exonerations are being made and people are getting new opportunities to show their innocence. Our legal system can change if people who work within it are willing to acknowledge these problems exist, because the public certainly is. I look at these cases, and so many other cases that we wish we could have worked on, and I still feel like I can’t believe what’s happening – and it happened to me!
What are some recurring issues you’ve seen in other wrongful conviction cases, including the ones you’ve been investigating on Unlocking the Truth?
I have an issue with questionable science and expert testimony. You can find an “expert” to say whatever you want them to say – on either side. That’s very problematic to me. The way photo lineups are done is a recurring problem that leads to false identifications – we need double blind photo lineups [where neither the person showing the lineup nor the witness knows which picture is the suspect].
But really, it all comes down to the investigation. You can tell relatively quickly if the police put blinders on. You can tell by the police reports, you can tell by the people they talk to, and who they choose not to talk to. If the police have a suspect and they stop looking at anything that might show that a person is innocent, and they go directly after things that they believe could prove their guilt, then you’re going to have a serious issue because they haven’t explored and thoroughly investigated the case. Look at any wrongful conviction, and you will see that the police did not do their work – but they think that’s okay, because their job, as they will say, is to build a case against a suspect, not to find out whether they’re innocent or guilty. I didn’t understand that before I was arrested, my family didn’t understand it, and the public doesn’t understand it. If the police have you on their radar, they’re going to build a case against you – even if there’s evidence of your innocence, it’s not going to be relevant to them, because they’re building a case and they’ll “let the jury decide.”
And that approach is reaffirmed all the way up the chain. Once someone is convicted, the courts often continue to reaffirm that decision, regardless of whether there’s reason to doubt its validity – it seems like it’s so easy to put people away, and so difficult to get them out.
I have lived with this for a long time, 13 years now, and I still don’t understand how one person can do this to another person, let alone a whole system. It’s very troubling. But the American public is fascinated, and they’re becoming outraged. When I was arrested, you did not hear about wrongful convictions. Now we’re starting to see that it can happen to anyone, and when it does happen, it’s so difficult, even with the evidence, to overturn a conviction. That’s why having this show on MTV is so important, because it’s a great place to educate young people about what is going on in their legal system, at a time when they’re deciding who they want to be in life – they’re going to be the next prosecutors and judges, they’re going to be the people making these decisions, and they can have a huge impact on changing the system and get justice for the people who deserve it most: the victims and their families. Why this is happening and why it can’t change? That’s a question that remains unanswered.
During those 10 years when you were fighting to prove your innocence, did you believe that you would one day be exonerated?
There were times when I would lose complete faith, but I still thought if we could get in front of one unbiased court, a court that wasn’t connected in some way to Boone County, or these local individuals, that we would have hope — and that’s exactly what happened. We proved that I was innocent. Those people who testified against me even acknowledged they lied at my trial. When they testified against me, it was in their own best interests. When they admitted that they lied, it wasn’t – they could have gone to prison for a very long time, or in Erickson’s case, he could have gotten a longer sentence. Everything has shown that I don’t belong in prison and the authorities who put me there still won’t acknowledge their wrongdoing. I’ve never gotten an apology. The authorities are not actively pursuing the person who actually committed this crime.
Before I was arrested and convicted, I believed in my legal system. A lot is taken from you when you can’t have faith in your legal system anymore. That’s a really scary thing, especially if you’re in it and you’re fighting for your life.
The Michael Politte case, which you introduced in the first episode, is gut-wrenching. A 14-year-old kid wakes up in the middle of the night smelling smoke, runs into his mother’s bedroom and sees her burning to death. He was immediately treated as the only suspect and then the police claimed he confessed to the murder during a suicide attempt. He says he didn’t – but regardless, it’s crazy that a child who just witnessed his mother’s gruesome death is having his behavior analyzed for signs of guilt.
Even if Michael said what they claim, it’s irrelevant. They had no evidence, but they immediately institutionalized a 14-year-old kid, over Christmas, after seeing his mother murdered. He was alone, he couldn’t have contact with his family and he could not grieve. I believe anything that happens after that is completely irrelevant and should not be allowed in court because how could any human being, let alone a 14-year-old kid, have their sanity at that point?
It’s frightening, but this is happening to kids all the time. I was in prison with people who were 14,15, 16 when they were arrested. Some of them were guilty, some of them were innocent. But there are other problems with our legal system like disproportionate sentencing – black males are definitely subjected to more scrutiny and taken advantage of more than any other group.
Kathleen Zellner was part of the legal team that succeeded at getting you exonerated and released from prison – but most people won’t have access to attorney like her. In fact, a lot of people won’t necessarily have access to decent legal representation at all because of financial issues. What kind of hope or options are there for people who are poor?
I think exposing injustice in the legal system is the most important thing that we can do. Think about it: 1,700 people have been exonerated in total. But if you look at the numbers – easily 8,000 people will go to prison for a crime they didn’t commit this year alone. Not even a quarter of that number have been exonerated – ever. That is frightening. We need to continue to expose those cases, increase public awareness and stop the inflow of people going to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
I get emails every day from people who are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. It is the most difficult thing for me to read, because I know how they feel. I know how the families feel. These are desperate emails, and I want to help them, so I send them on to other attorneys – but the fact is, there are only so many resources. I’m from a middle class family, I’m somewhat educated, I’m halfway decent looking and it was still difficult for me to get an attorney. A lot of people don’t have the right connections, they don’t necessarily look or act “the right way” and they can’t find someone to represent them – that’s a huge issue. All we can do is continue to expose it, continue to provide what resources we have.
Most people have very little understanding of the law, yet as jurors, we’re tasked with deciding whether to take away someone’s freedom. So exposing the flaws in the criminal justice system with shows Unlocking the Truth hopefully makes people more conscientious jurors.
It’s like a public service announcement: this is how our legal system is operating, and none of us should accept it, because it can affect any of us. It should frighten you. And if it doesn’t frighten you, then you’re not paying attention.
We have to expose it. We have to sit down and acknowledge our deficiencies if we’re ever going to get beyond them. Those prosectors who have acknowledged a wrongful conviction and stood up and said, “This is wrong, this person is innocent, they should be freed” – that person has been held up as a hero for doing the right thing. Every time. That shows their peers that doing the right thing, acknowledging past wrongs, is appreciated and respected.
What have the last few years been like since you were let out of prison?
I certainly struggle. I have one life, like everyone else, and 10 years of my life were taken from me. I’ll never have the opportunity to live through my twenties again. Never. It’ll never be okay, it’ll never be right and I’ll always be mad about what happened to me. But the only thing I can do with that negative energy, to have what happened to me make sense, is to stop it from happening to other people. Right now, someone who is innocent is being interrogated by police who have blinders on, and their life is about to change.
I can’t accept that. I struggle with trying to make my life meaningful, to make those 10 years make sense. I’m in a good mental state, I guess, because I’ve figured out a way that I can combat what happened to me and what’s happening to other people. I told the media when I got out, I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. And if no opportunities come my way, I’m going to make my own – and that’s what I’ve done. If I didn’t, I don’t think I would survive. I would lose my mind. As long as I can help other people and give back, that helps me. But I’m still fighting for myself every day. It never ends.
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