This week, a state appeals court in Missouri vacated the conviction of 29-year-old Ryan Ferguson. In 2005, Ferguson was convicted for the murder of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune. The only real evidence against him was the testimony of a friend, who later recanted, and testimony from an eyewitness who put him at the scene of the crime. That eyewitness also later recanted. Police found hair, fingerprints, and bloody footprints around Heithold's body, but none of that evidence implicated Ferguson. The state will now decide whether or not to retry him.

Unfortunately for him, Ferguson isn't out of trouble just yet. The Missouri Attorney General's Office has historically been one of the most stubborn in the country when it comes to accepting the possibility of a wrongful conviction. It has also been one of the aggressive in the country in pursuing convictions, particularly death penalty cases. (Ferguson had been sentenced to 40 years in prison.) Missouri The state ranks fifth in number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It also ranks fifth in executions per capita.

Consider the case of Reginald Griffin. Griffin was convicted in 1983 for the murder of an inmate at the Moberly Correctional Center. He was sentenced to death. In 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court found that the Missouri Attorney General's Office had withheld critical exculpatory evidence from Griffin's attorneys. The prosecutor watchdog site Open File details that evidence:

The Court found that the Missouri Attorney General’s office withheld information that prison guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate, Jeffrey Smith, as Smith attempted to leave the area where the victim was stabbed on the day of the murder. The Missouri Supreme Court deemed this evidence exculpatory because it would have significantly bolstered Griffin’s alternate perpetrator theory at trial.

And this is not the only exculpatory evidence that the state has kept to themselves.

In 2005, when Griffin’s attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus that would later be granted by the Supreme Court, they alleged that one of the state’s two key witnesses in the case had recanted his trial testimony. The witness, Paul Curtis, told Griffin’s jury that he saw Griffin stab the victim with a long curved knife. Upon receiving Curtis’s affidavit recanting that testimony, an investigator from the Attorney General’s Office met with Curtis to question him about it.

In a recorded interview in 2006, Curtis told the AG’s investigator that a prison investigator named Raymond Newberry had coached his testimony (going as far as to tell Curtis the identities of people in photographs so he could point them out in court, and providing information about the murder weapon so he would know how to describe it) in exchange for benefits such as a prison transfer, money, and a TV.

That's all bad enough. But it gets worse. Under Brady v. Maryland, a 60-year-old Supreme Court decision, the prosecutors were obligated to turn over this information. But the Attorney General's Office argued otherwise. Again from Open File:

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke argued that his office was not obligated to turn over the evidence because it was elicited in the course of a civil proceeding (habeas corpus). Though this may be true procedurally, ethically it does not relieve the Attorney General’s office of its duty to disclose evidence that tends to negate the guilt of the accused, and to seek justice. Further, despite his knowledge of the truthfulness of Curtis’s recantation, Hawke not only hid the evidence that would conclusively establish the truthfulness of the recantation but he then specifically argued that Curtis recantation was coerced and false in a calculated effort to continue Griffin’s wrongful incarceration.

Regardless of whether Hawke is correct about his legal obligations, or whether the Open File folks are correct about his black-letter ethical obligations, there is a larger question here about a commitment to justice and fairness. A prosecutor always has the discretion to turn over more evidence than the minimum required under law and some minimalist interpretation of ethical guidelines. If he believes doing so is in the interest of justice, he very well should. Instead, too often in these cases where prosecutorial shenanigans are revealed in post-conviction, state attorneys general hide behind procedural rules to avoid copping to the fact that the state has made mistakes. Griffin was finally exonerated and freed two weeks ago.

For all the talk we hear from the law-and-order crowd about dangerous criminals who "get off on a technicality," there are plenty of examples of prosecutors relying on legal technicalities to argue against overturning questionable convictions, even in death penalty cases.

And it isn't as if there isn't a history of such questionable convictions in Missouri. There have been at least nine exonerations in the state since 2010. Six of those were for murder, one was for kidnapping, and two were for sexual assaults. In a feature on prosecutorial misconduct I wrote for HuffPost in August, I noted the particularly troubling history of former Missouri prosecutor Kenny Hulshof.

Kenny Hulshof was so good at winning convictions he was regularly called upon by the state attorney general's office to oversee death penalty cases. He has since been cited by two appellate judges -- one state, one federal -- for withholding evidence. In 2008, the Associated Press uncovered five other cases Hulshof prosecuted in which the defendant's guilt had since come into question.

I didn't include it in my piece, but in January the Missouri Supreme Court overturned a third Hulshof conviction, again finding that he and his team of prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence.

The general theme of that piece from August is that prosecutors who commit this sort of misconduct are never sanctioned for it. They're never really held accountable in any way. (Hulshof moved on from prosecuting death penalty cases to get elected to the U.S. Congress, and now has a high-paying gig at a top law firm.)

Every incentive points toward putting people in prison as frequently as possible. When there's no disincentive for going to far in pursuit of those convictions, you get a culture of conviction, where preserving a guilty verdict becomes the dominant priority, well above justice, fairness, and the integrity of the criminal justice system. That certainly seems to be what has happened in the Office of the Missouri Attorney General.

Finally, here's another statistic: Missouri ranks fourth in executions per death sentence since 1977. If we could be certain that everyone on Missouri's death row is guilty -- that there is little reason to doubt the integrity of a murder conviction in Missouri -- that statistic wouldn't mean much. But given what we've already covered in this post, we're nowhere near certain of any of that. Which means that the comparatively efficient rate at which Missouri converts convictions into executions might be the scariest statistic of all.

NOTE: This post has been changed to reflect Ferguson's age (29) and a corrected spelling of the victim's last name.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Raul Castro, President Of Cuba

    In this image from TV, US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, in the rain for a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Tuesday Dec. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/SABC Pool)

  • Cristina Fernandez, President Of Argentina

    President Barack Obama meets with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez at the G20 Summit in Cannes, France, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Hamid Karzai, President Of Afghanistan

    Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands after a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 11, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Julia Gillard, Prime Minister Of Australia

    U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard shake hands during a bilateral meeting at Parliament House in Canberra on November 16, 2011. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Dilma Rousseff, President Of Brazil

    U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff (R) during a joint press conference at Palacio do Planalto in Brasilia on March 19, 2011. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> The title of this slide initially referred to Dilma Rousseff as the prime minister of Brazil. In fact, she is the president of Brazil.</em>

  • Hun Sen, Prime Minister Of Cambodia

    U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) reach out to shake hands on arrival at the Peace Palace for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and US summit in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012 following the 21st ASEAN Leaders Summit. (ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Stephen Harper, Prime Minister Of Canada

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper in bilateral meeting during the G20 Summit, Tuesday, June 19, 2012, in Los Cabos, Mexico. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • Sebastian Pinera, President Of Chile

    U.S. President Barack Obama greets Chilean President Sebastian Pinera before a dinner at the Washington Convention Center during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2010. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Xi Jinping, President Of China

    U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Juan Manuel Santos, President Of Colombia

    Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands during a joint press conference in the framework of the VI Summit of the Americas at Casa de Huespedes in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 15, 2012. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Laura Chinchilla, President Of Costa Rica

    President Barack Obama and Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla shake hands at the end of their joint press conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, Friday, May 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

  • Francois Hollande, President Of France

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with French President Francois Hollande on arrival for the G8 Summit Friday, May 18, 2012 at Camp David, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Angela Merkel, Chancellor Of Germany

    U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks after a joint press conference following their meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Giorgio Napolitano, President Of Italy

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister Of Japan

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Park Geu-Hye, President Of South Korea

    President Barack Obama and South Korea President Park Geun-Hye shake hands at the conclusion of their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Enrique Pena Nieto, President Of Mexico

    President Barack Obama, left, and Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, shake hands following a news conference at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, Thursday, May 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Benigno Aquino, President Of The Philippines

    U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines in the Oval Office at the White House on June 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

  • Donald Tusk, Prime Minister Of Poland

    Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (R) shake hands with U.S. President Barack Obama (L) during their meeting in Warsaw on May 28, 2011. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Amir Of Qatar

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Traian Basescu, President Of Romania

    U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets Romania's President Traian Basescu before a dinner at the US Ambassador's residence in Prague on April 8, 2010. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Vladimir Putin, President Of Russia

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in a bilateral meeting during the G20 Summit, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Los Cabos, Mexico. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King Of Saudi Arabia

    U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during meetings in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, June 29, 2010. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister Of Singapore

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April, 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Fredrik Reinfeldt, Prime Minister Of Sweden

    U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (L) during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 2, 2009. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister Of Thailand

    U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news conference at Thai Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Abdullah II, King Of Jordan

    FILE - In this March 22, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama, left, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, right, shake hands following their joint new conference at the King's Palace in Amman, Jordan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Of Turkey

    U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their bilateral meeting in Seoul on March 25, 2012 on the eve of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • David Cameron, Prime Minister Of Great Britain

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron on arrival for the G8 Summit Friday, May 18, 2012 at Camp David, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Hugo Chavez, Former President Of Venezuela

    Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) gives a book, 'The Open Veins of Latin America' of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to US President Barack Obama (L) during a multilateral meeting to begin during the Summit of the Americas at the Hyatt Regency in Port of Spain, Trinidad April 18, 2009. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)