Kathleen T. Zellner
Kathleen T. Zellner

Andrew Jenks hoped his documentary would free Ryan Ferguson from prison.

Kathleen T. Zellner beat him to it.

As a result, both Ferguson and Zellner walked the red carpet Sunday at the premiere of Jenks’ movie at Manhattan’s famed Tribeca Film Festival.

It’s the story of Ferguson’s father’s decadelong effort to free his son from a 40-year prison sentence for a murder he didn’t commit — culminating in Zellner’s successful appeal. The film, titled “dream/killer,” has received a warm welcome from critics and audiences, presenting the possibility that it could be distributed nationwide.

Zellner, who narrates a portion of the film, attended the sold-out premiere along with roughly 300 others, including high-rollers such as James A. Dolan, the owner of the NBA’s New York Knicks. The 109-minute film received a standing ovation, Zellner said, followed by nearly 30 minutes of questions.

“The audience completely got the story,” said Zellner, principal at Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates in Downers Grove who has represented more exonerated inmates, 16, than any private attorney in the country.

“This is a story about pure innocence.”

Just 17 months ago, Ferguson was an inmate at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri.

His ordeal began when police arrested him on March 10, 2004. They began questioning him about a slaying that happened in a newspaper parking lot in Columbia, Mo. more than two years earlier.

An old friend of Ferguson’s had told police that he had a dream that he and Ferguson killed Kent Heitholt, a sports editor, on Halloween in 2001.

This scenario is where the film gets its name.

The ultimately false testimony of Charles Erickson and others overcame Ferguson’s defense that he had nothing to do with the murder.

Erickson pleaded guilty, testified against Ferguson, and received a 25-year sentence.

Ferguson was found guilty in 2005 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. No DNA or other physical evidence linked him to the crime.

Rolling Stone magazine called “dream/killer” one of the top 15 films at Tribeca this year. “Fans of ‘Serial’ and ‘The Jinx,’ meet your new favorite film,” the magazine review says, referring to two popular true-crime series of the past year.

Directed by Jenks, known for documentaries that have appeared on ESPN, HBO and MTV, “dream/killer” picks up long before Ferguson’s conviction.

The film develops the bond between Ferguson and his father, Bill, through old family footage. A trailer shows clips of the two skydiving together. When Ryan lands, he embraces his father.

“The filmmaker capably orchestrates suspense (if you don’t already know the outcome) and benefits immeasurably from an immensely likable central character, Ryan’s father, Bill,” The New York Times review says.

Asked in an interview to recount an anecdote that best described Bill’s commitment to freeing his son, Jenks said the elder Ferguson visited the parking lot crime scene “hundreds of times” at 2 a.m. — when the murder occurred — to scrutinize an eyewitness account. That work, in conjunction with a re-creation of the scene by Zellner, led to the account being discredited.

Jenks also recounted what Ferguson’s father did when he heard that Kevin Crane — the prosecutor in Ferguson’s case — was giving a commencement speech in 2013 at the University of Missouri. Ferguson’s father helped organize a plane to fly overhead with a banner reading “Free Ryan Ferguson.”

“The man has just no self-pity, unbelievable humility, and really, I’ve never met anybody quite like him,” Jenks said of Ferguson’s father.

“He was very, very close to Ryan,” Zellner said of Bill. “They have all this footage of their life together. (Ryan) was an Eagle Scout with no criminal record who was a good student, and it was just remarkable that he was arrested.”

The documentary also depicts Zellner’s work on the case, which began in 2009. She builds a case that police officers fed Erickson information about the crime after he got basic facts about the murder wrong — including not identifying where it took place.

She took depositions of Erickson and another witness from the original trial. They recanted their original statements against Ferguson, saying they were pressured by police.

Zellner’s firm spent 3,500 hours on the case and more than $1 million in fees and expenses. It resulted in Ferguson’s verdict being vacated and his release from prison in November 2013.

She is currently representing Ferguson in a civil trial set to start in August against members of the Columbia Police Department in which she alleges a “reckless investigation based on fabricated police reports that caused Ferguson’s co-defendant Erickson to plead guilty.”

Jenks said he hopes viewers of the film realize that the criminal justice system “is really flawed at its core.” In particular, he questioned long-standing legal precedent that grants prosecutors absolute immunity from civil lawsuits.

“Hopefully, people watch it … they look to their left, look to their right and think, damn, if there’s an unsolved murder, it just takes two eyewitnesses, and whether or not they’re being honest” doesn’t matter for a conviction, Jenks said.

“That’s what happened to Ryan. … The outrage of everything is excruciating.”

Jenks spent nearly two years documenting the end of Ferguson’s trial, interviewing and spending time with Zellner. He referred to her as “America’s attorney” and remarked that her presence and ability to clearly articulate facts controls a courtroom.

“She said the other night that if I wanted to frame Mother Teresa I could,” Jenks said. “And she said it very matter-of-factly.”

Meanwhile, Erickson remains in prison despite many of the court findings that led to Ferguson’s release also pertaining to his case. The difficulty he faces is having pleaded guilty. Nonetheless, Zellner believes he will be released.

“The story is out there now,” she said. “The portrayal of it in this documentary is that (Erickson) is completely innocent. You put that kind of public pressure with these kind of people on it — these are very powerful people — and I think that takes it to a different level.”