Editor's note: This is a preview of a story that will appear in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.
Looking for a long-term commitment in covering a complicated local crime story?
As the skeptics say, “Good luck with that!” So it’s well worth noting that both Columbia, Mo., daily newspapers have weighed in recently on the long-term, multiple-part commitment by CBS’ “48 Hours” in covering the 2001 murder case of Columbia Tribune sports editor and popular University of Missouri Journalism School alum Kent Heitholt.
The CBS attention highlights the story of two teenagers convicted in this murder case: one a drug abuser who confessed to the crime two-and-a half-years after the fact, the other consistently denying any involvement but nonetheless named as accomplice, convicted without any physical evidence to tie him to the crime.
Heitholt was slain in the early morning on Nov. 1, 2001. The two young men, high school students at that time – Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson – were together that evening. They were implicated in the Heitholt’s death when Erickson told police investigators years later that he had a feeling that he and Ferguson had killed Heitholt when they tried to rob him.
Erickson based his confession on recurring memories of an attack on the victim with what he described as a tire iron. Erickson identified Ferguson as being with him at the scene. Erickson pleaded guilty to the murder and received a sentence of 25 years. Ferguson consistently denied any involvement whatsoever but was convicted in 2005. He is serving a 40-year prison sentence for second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. Erickson recently recanted what he earlier claimed took place that night.
From a reporting point of view, sustained attention by two national television networks makes the case unique. Both CBS and NBC have broadcast reports about it. NBC aired “Under a Killing Moon” as part of “Dateline” on Dec. 1.
More noteworthy, has been continuous reporting by seasoned “48 Hours” correspondent and attorney Erin Moriarty. Writing for VOX Magazine in the Columbia Missourian on May 12, 2011, Megan Thomas Davis touted the determination of Moriarty to continue reporting this case – one Moriarty began following in 2005.