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Byers' Beat: How jurors arrived at first-degree murder conviction in Dawan Ferguson case

Christian Ferguson was 9 years old when his father claimed he was kidnapped during a carjacking. He was never seen again.

CLAYTON, Mo. — The evidence that meant the difference between a first- or second-degree murder conviction for Dawan Ferguson Friday was pictures of prescription bottles prosecutors showed the jury minutes before their deliberations began.

Juror Evan Harris told 5 On Your Side that the jury was united from the beginning of their deliberations that Dawan Ferguson murdered his 9-year-old son Christian in 2003 – but she was the lone hold out between whether he was guilty of first-or second-degree murder.

Then she saw the pictures of prescription bottles that contained medications his son needed to survive with a rare genetic disorder that left him unable to process protein.

There were dates on the bottles that showed they had been filled months and months before the pictures were taken, and still had the medication inside them.

Christian’s doctor and pharmacists testified the prescriptions were supposed to last for only 30 days at a time.

During the five-day trial, witnesses described seeing Christian in urine-soaked diapers and clothing. The FBI also photographed Christian’s bed, which had been soaked with urine down to the wooden slats that held the mattress in place.

Two days before Dawan Ferguson claimed a carjacker stole his car with his son inside, a judge ordered him to restore court-ordered visits with the child’s mother, Theda Person.

Prosecutors alleged Christian’s father gave his son just enough medication to “get by,” for months, but that his “time was up,” and he had to make sure no one saw the state Christian was in during June 2003.

Credit: St. Louis County Police Department

Jurors agreed.

“I thought about how to prove murder first, you need deliberation,” Harris said. “And they showed us the dates and they were from months and a year ago and you did not give it to Christian.”

A first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence, which, in Missouri, is about 30 years without the chance for parole.

He will be sentenced Aug. 16.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell stood with Person and Christian’s sister Lin Ferguson following the verdict for a press conference. 

Two prosecutors, including former St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, declined to prosecute the case. The alleged carjacking Dawan Ferguson described happened in the city. 

Joyce said her office had a conflict of interest in the case because Dawan Ferguson was a bounty hunter, so she asked St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to review the case.  

Dawan Ferguson's attorneys argued Theda Person lobbied McCulloch's political challenger Bell to charge her ex-husband by hosting fundraisers for his campaign. He defeated McCulloch, and, in 2019, charged Dawan Ferguson for Christian's murder, saying new evidence surfaced. 

“She was right, all those years she was right and we're just glad we were along for the ride to help her see justice,” Bell said at the press conference.

Person said she was grateful for the jurors.

“I'm just grateful we had jurors who did their jobs and made sure that justice was served as much as possible for our family,” she said.

Her ex-husband is also expected to go to trial again in August – this time for sexual assault charges involving two children. In that case, prosecutors say he impregnated one of his victims when she was only 13 years old.

In closing arguments Friday, Assistant Public Defender Jemia Steele said the prosecution’s theory of how Christian died sounded “like they were throwing everything against a wall to see what would stick.”

“Nothing is sticking,” she said.

She added: “Honestly, listening to the state’s whole case this week has sounded like a parental rights trial, not a murder trial.”

She said she felt like prosecutors painted her client as a “bad dad,” they didn’t prove he was a murderer. She said the entire case rested on how Dawan Ferguson’s ex-wife, Theda Person, told every witness the state called her theory of what happened and that became the narrative without any proof.

“You need to set aside your feelings,” Steele said. “Feelings are not facts. The idea that someone can be convicted of murder based on what an angry ex-wife says is unreal.

“I would not dare say Dawan was father of the year. He made some choices that are uncomfortable, the missed appointments, the bed linens, but that's not evidence he murdered Christian.”

She said prosecutors did not prove her client killed his son because there was no way to test the child’s body to see if any lack of medication or nutrition caused his death.

The absence of Christian’s remains made the case an uphill battle for prosecutors, and left the case largely circumstantial.

Assistant St. Louis County Prosecutor John Schlesinger said the testimony of all of the witnesses was more than circumstantial evidence, along with medical and prescription records.

The state called 29 witnesses in all. The defense called four during the five-day trial.

“He brought him to the brink of death and was about to get caught, so he killed him and staged a fake cover-up to try to get away with it,” Schlesinger said.

Caregivers testified that medications and formula they would prepare for Christian when they were off on weekends was still there when they would return.

Steele pressed the caregivers, social workers and doctors about why they didn’t report her client to the Division of Children and Family Services if they were so concerned about his safety.

“The state wants you to believe Dawan was slowly killing his child in front of doctors and nurses for years and no one noticed,” she said. “If it was true, they would have called. They were mandated reporters.”

Schlesinger told jurors all of those people should have reported their concerns to the state, and that a lot of people in Christian’s life “failed him.”

“Don't be another part of the system that fails him now,” he said. “Find Dawan Ferguson guilty of murder.”

Two and a half hours later, they did.

“We felt what the prosecution and the defense was saying about how a lot of people failed Christian, when everything is said and done Christian was the victim in this, Christian was failed mostly by Dawan Ferguson, but there were other people, mandated reporters that also should have reported his neglect and failed to do so," Schlesinger said.

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