On the chilly dark night of Oct. 22, 2001, Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt from Columbia, Mo. was murdered in the parking lot of the newspaper’s building. By whom? For two years the police had no solid leads, until January 2004 when Chuck Erickson, a high school junior at the time of the killing, told friends he had a dream he did it.With him, he claimed, was his friend Ryan Ferguson.
Since this case began, Columbia has gotten to know what it’s like to be under the microscope of the nation. America watched in curiosity when the dead-end case took an usual turn. Erickson came foward saying he “dreamed he did it.” Police, eager to solve this case, convicted Erickson and Ferguson fairly quickly. But the taped confession, video evidence, and witness testimony has some unconvinced. How could two men, who barely had any criminal records whatsoever, decide to go out and kill someone, just for a little bit of cash?
According to a CBS 48-Hour Special titled “Dream Killer, Erickson told police the attack was Feruson’s idea. He said after he and Ferguson ran out of money to buy drinks, Ferguson suggested robbing someone. Erickson said they ended up in the Tribune parking lot and after choosing their victim, things got “quickly out of hand.”
The case is a long drawn out one, but definitely something to look at if you have some spare time. I would like to examine how eyewitness testimony played a part in this case and whether eyewitness testimony is really valued by researchers as good evidence. In conjunction with Erickson coming forward saying he dreamt it, I would also like to point out a few facts on how false memories are constructed.
Since Erickson came forward claiming he had a “dream he did it”, many remain skeptical he actually had anything to do with it. In the CBS Special, video is shown of police leading a wide-eyed Erickson around the crime scene showing and telling him where everything happened. They even had to point out where Heitholt’s car was parked. When asked about certain things that happened, such as how Heitholt was strangled with his own belt, Erickson seemed to have very little knowledge about what happened the night of Heitholt’s murder.
Time and again studies have shown false memories can be implanted. Take for example the results of one study done by Loftus and Pickrell in 1995. Their study tested a group of people on events they had experienced in their pasts, true and false memories. They found the participants in their study recalled 68 percent of the true events. They also found 7 out of 24 people, 29 percent, recalled the false event.
In a Columbia Missourian article, facts suggest Erickson provided a false confession due to false memories:
At a July 2008 evidentiary hearing in Ferguson’s post-conviction case, false confessions expert Richard Leo testified that Erickson’s statements bore many of the hallmarks of a persuaded false confession, one in which an innocent person becomes convinced he committed a crime.
Leo testified that, in his initial videotaped police interrogations, Erickson appeared to be attempting to guess the correct answer to the detectives’ questions, rather than stating facts he truly remembered.
In his most recent statement, Erickson said: “I made a lot of assumptions and turned them into facts to satisfy the police. When I did that, I used the opportunity to move the blame onto Ryan and off of myself.”
He continued, “I could not accept in my conscious mind that I was the sole perpetrator and aggressor, so I put a lot of the blame on Ryan. …I don’t think that much of it was even consciously done. It was just too hard to admit to myself and others that I killed someone. I could not even accept the possibility of it.”
But later in the statement, he seemed to say that passing the blame to Ferguson was a conscious attempt to minimize his own punishment. “I was worried about survival,” he said, referencing the interrogation videos, in which one detective told Erickson that “it’s you that is on this chopping block.”
Watch the video below to see the police interrogation:
According to CBS, police found very little evidence at the scene of the crime. They found a piece of hair, bloody footprints, and Heitholt’s wallet. They also noticed Heitholt’s keys and watch were missing from the scene. The main source of evidence was from a janitor at the building who said he caught a glimpse the suspects. At the time of the murder, he said he saw two white men running away from Kent’s car. But the problem was the janitor said he couldn’t provide a description of the men.
Later on this would change when the judge called the janitor to the stand as a witness. When asked at the trial if he saw the individual or individuals from that night, he pointed at Ferguson. CBS states in their special:
Trump (the janitor) has had his own problems with the law. He was in prison when he saw the arrest photos of Ryan and Chuck in the newspaper — and, like Chuck, says the paper jolted his memory.
At trial, Trump was far more confident about the killers’ identities than even the victim’s daughter, Kali Heitholt.
Asked if she was troubled by the lack of physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime, Kali (Heitholt’s daughter) says, “Yeah, it does a lot. I mean you’d think that they would have left physical evidence, like being so young and stupid. They would have missed something.”
So how can we interpret the janitor’s testimony? Eyewitnesses use schematic information to assist themselves in their recall of information. Schemas are well-integrated chunks of knowledge about the world, events, people, or actions. You use schemas to form expectations about things. You use these schemas to reconstruct memories. Eyewitnesses tend to piece together the details of an event in terms of “what must have been true.” In a study done by Brewer and Treyens in 1981, they left subjects in a room for a few minutes. They then led them out of the room and had them recall and recognize the objects they had seen in the room. Brewer and Treyens found objects not presented at a scene, but were wrongly recognized with high confidence, tended to be schema-consistent. Was it possible the janitor either reconstructed his memories wrong or since he had been told they were there at the time of the event felt strongly they were there because it was schema-consistent?
Another aspect to look at is how well a person can recognize a suspect’s face.
According to Memory by Alan Baddeley, a normal person’s face recognition is poorer than we think. Bruce conducted a study in 1999 to find out how well people remember faces. In his study, he presented his subjects with a target face taken from a circuit television video. The video had 10 photographs. There were three levels of target pose. Faces smiling, neutral and 30 degrees neutral. Subjects were asked to match the target face with one of the 10 photographs or to indicate if there was no match or the target face.
What he found was his subjects were only 65 percent accurate in identifying the right face from the 10 when the correct face was present. Thirty-five percent of subjects still picked a face even when the correct face wasn’t present. Even video, in conjunction with the photographs, did not improve their recognitions. People often confused one’s face with a similar face.
Researchers also discovered holistic face processing has something to do with it. When looking at other’s faces people tend to pay very little attention to details. They process faces after examining the overall structure of the face. Take a look at this example of the “Thatcher Illusion”: Michael Thompson’s “Thatcher Illusion”. So what do these things tell you about eyewitness testimonies?
Just another little fact in this case… in the CBS Special the private investigator spoke about what police found (or did not find) to connect the two men to the crime:
Private investigator Jim Miller, hired by Ryan Ferguson’s family, has been to the crime scene numerous times.
“There was no evidence that linked Ryan or Chuck to this crime — DNA evidence, blood evidence, hair, fiber, fingerprints — nothing,” says Miller.
(Prosecutor Kevin) Crane admits it’s a tough case to prove. Asked if a murder weapon was ever found, Crane says, “No.”
So what do you think? Are Erickson and Ferguson guilty? Should police base a lot of their evidence on memories and eyewitness testimonies?
Click on the links below to read more stories involving false memories and eyewitness testimonies:
More to come in this blog:
The chilling disappearance of 11-year-old boy Jacob Wetterling and how 21 years later the police still have no solid leads on what happened to him. How often do these types of cases happen, with no sign of evidence left behind? How often to children really go missing by strangers?
How do police use suspect’s facial reactions and body movement to detect deception? Fox Television’s show “Lie To Me” may be a fiction show, but is it based on true evidence of body language?
Also an interview with my brother who served five years in the Marine Corps. How does he view crime in the military and what has his experience been? Everyday news outlets splash headlines across the internet claiming soldiers are killing civilians overseas or subjecting them to torture, but does one former military serviceman’s say those headlines are blown out of proportion?