Recovered Memory on Trial
On Saturday, Feb. 18, the CBS program 48 Hours Mystery aired a story on the 2001 murder of Ken Heitholt, a sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri.
Heitholt, 48, was beaten with a tire iron and strangled to death in the parking lot of the Tribune shortly after 2:00 AM on Halloween night, 2001, as he left his office. He had just finished celebrating his 5th anniversary with the newspaper. There were no suspects to the crime, which seemed to be a violent robbery.
More than 2 years after Heitholt’s death, a 19-year-old Columbia resident named Charles Erickson confided to friends that he was having flashbacks and dreams related to the crime. He suspected he might have killed the sports editor, then blocked out all conscious memories of it.
One of Erickson’s friends phoned in a tip to Crimestoppers, and Erickson was questioned by police. He told the investigators he had been having vivid dreams about committing the crime. In those dreams, he was aided by his friend Ryan Ferguson.
Over time, Erickson’s vague memories solidified into a confession: On Halloween night, 2001, he and Ryan Ferguson had been drinking at a local bar with fake IDs. The boys were 17, students at the same Columbia high school. When they ran out of money, Ferguson suggested they rob a stranger. He even suggested they murder that stranger, since he “wanted to kill someone before he was 60.” They selected Ken Heitholt at random, as he stood in the parking lot feeding a stray cat. Ferguson struck him with a tire iron from Ferguson’s car while Erickson strangled the man with a belt.
Ryan Ferguson adamantly denied any involvement in the murder of Heitholt, and his family and friends rallied to his side. No physical evidence linked either of the teens to the crime. Yet an October 2004 trial resulted in the conviction of Ferguson for first-degree murder and second-degree robbery. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Erickson testified against his former friend as part of a plea bargain (25 years in prison for second-degree murder). (1)
The question is: Were Erickson’s recovered memories accurate? Should recovered memories be allowed as testimony in court if there is no corroborating evidence?
The recovered memory controversy is a central issue in some accounts of Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) and murder. Prominent alleged victims of SRA like Michelle Pazder and Lauren Stratford recovered memories of abuse as adults, and their recollections were later shown to be fatally flawed. But those cases didn’t result in successful prosecutions, nor even trials. The infamous Ramona case of Napa Valley ended in victory for the man accused of SRA by his adult daughter, who had retrieved unconscious memories of abuse in therapy. Mr. Ramona successfully sued the therapists for malpractice. (See Moira Johnston’s excellent book on the Ramona case, Spectral Evidence). The only murder convictions resulting from recovered-memory testimony that comes to mind is the 1990 conviction of George Franklin for the murder of a young girl (overturned in 1996, when new evidence was discovered). Like the Heitholt case, this case had a startling lack of physical evidence. George Franklin’s grown daughter, Eileen, had spontaneously recalled witnessing the crime 20 years after the fact, and many of the details she provided about the crime scene and the time of the murder were glaringly incorrect. (2)Franklin’s conviction has been widely criticized by memory experts and legal commentators, including Elizabeth Loftus (read an excerpt from Loftus’s and Katherine Ketcham’s The Myth of Repressed Memory detailing Eileen Franklin’s recovered memories).
So far, the outcome of the Columbia case hasn’t drawn much criticism from the legal or psychological professions. If the use of recovered-memory testimony isn’t examined carefully, the case of Ferguson and Erickson could set a hazardous precedent.
1. Columbia Daily Tribune articles on the Heitholt case (available online here) and Feb. 18/06 48 Hours Mystery (CBS Television)
2. Once Upon a Time by Harry N. MacLean (Dell paperback, 1993) and Sins of the Father by Eileen Franklin and Wiliam Wright (Fawcett Crest paperback, 1991)