Charles Erickson spends his days like many of us might.
He takes college classes and trains his foster dog, Harley. He’s also in a class to improve his public speaking.
The difference is that he’s doing it all behind bars.
Erickson has spent almost 15 years in prison after confessing to the Nov. 1, 2001, murder of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt.
Now, after years of discussion, several lawyers, and hundreds of pages in documents, he’s filed his first petition to get out of prison in Pike County Circuit Court. It details how police and prosecutors allegedly intimidated and coerced him into a making a false confession.
Two years after the murder, he saw an article in the newspaper about the homicide, Erickson said, which put images from the scene into his mind.
“I didn’t know. I didn’t know for a long time (what happened that night)” he told ABC 17 News in a prison interview. “I knew I was in the area. I knew I was blacked out. I knew that I was with Ryan Ferguson. I knew that I looked like the person they were looking for.”
Ferguson was arrested along with Erickson in March 2004. Despite maintaining his innocence from the beginning, Ferguson was convicted of first-degree murder. Erickson’s testimony at trial played a large role in the conviction because there was no physical evidence tying the two to the crime.
Erickson told police and prosecutors that he and Ferguson attacked Heitholt, who was strangled to death, because they had run out of money while out partying and wanted more cash. Erickson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed criminal action and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Erickson is now serving that sentence at Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green. He’s up for parole in four and a half years.
Ferguson was released from prison nearly 10 years after his arrest when a judge threw his conviction out, ruling police and prosecutors had violated his civil rights. A judge in 2017 awarded Ferguson $11 million in a civil suit over his conviction and incarceration.
Erickson’s fight has been different, thanks in part to his confession to the crime.
“I am innocent, but I think a lot of people are going to look at it as ‘You don’t know, he confessed,'” Erickson said. “‘Whether it was falsely or not, he got on the stand.'”
What happened in the Columbia Police Department interrogation room, and the months leading up to Ferguson’s trial, are the basis for Erickson’s petition. It’s the first legal action he’s taken since being sentenced.
“If I’m confident of anything, it’s that this man 100 percent deserves to get out of prison,” said Landon Magnusson, Erickson’s attorney.
Within the 87-page petition, Magnusson echoes much of what Erickson now claims.
Police interrogation footage showed Columbia detective Jeff Nichols getting in Erickon’s face as he begins to doubt details of the story.
Erickson tells Nichols “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel guilty about it,” but also that he could just “be sitting here, fabricating all of it.”
“Let’s just stop right there,” Nichols tells him. “One thing I’m not going to do is sit here and listen to this kind of gibberish.”
Erickson claims the intimidation and coercion didn’t end with police. He told ABC 17 News that in the months leading up to his trial, he was led to believe he was going to be given the death penalty unless he stuck to his story.
“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison, I didn’t want to be executed,” he said. “I didn’t really know what was going on, but I thought that I was involved. I thought that if I didn’t put it on Ryan, he was going to put it on me.”
The petition also claims that evidence was either withheld from Erickson or falsified, including witness statements. During initial interrogation, Erickson mentioned seeing a friend named Dallas Mallory near the scene. Police interviewed Mallory, and reports indicated he told them Erickson told him he had “beat someone down” and there had been a “fight.”
“Mr. Mallory has confirmed twice, under oath, that the report prosecutors gave Charles was false,” the petition states.
Several lawyers that took on Erickson’s case were unable to reach the finish line for various reasons.
“Over the course of time, he was just ill-served,” said Magnusson.
Erickson said that over the years, there has been too much politics and too much “nonsense” relating to the lawyers he has dealt with.
“I finally have an attorney who’s honest with me,” said Erickson. “He simply did what he said he was gonna do.”
He said it’s about time.
“This is a fight that shouldn’t have to be fought,” he said. “Let me go or give me a trial.”
CPD officers involved in the original investigation, Judge Kevin Crane (who prosecuted the case) and Ferguson declined to comment on the record about the case or Erickson’s appeal.
The state has 45 days to respond to Erickson’s petition with its own filing.