advertisement

Ryan Ferguson complaint alleges investigators withheld evidence, coerced witnesses

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | 7:10 p.m. CDT; updated 11:33 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 12, 2014

COLUMBIA — A lawsuit filed by Ryan Ferguson's attorneys alleges that city employees violated Ferguson's civil right to a fair trial by withholding evidence, pressuring involved persons in interviews and failing to investigate other suspects.

The complaint lists and elaborates on nine allegations. Latisha Stroer is the only police officer listed who is still working for the Columbia Police Department. The others have retired or moved to different agencies. William Haws and Ben White are still investigators for the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and Kevin Crane is now a judge in the 13th Circuit of Boone County.

For a guide to who's who in this case, click here.

Count 1: Destruction and/or suppression of exculpatory evidence

Against: Prosecutor's investigator William Haws, police officers

Haws failed to disclose interviews with two key witnesses, Barbara and Jerry Trump, to both the prosecution and the defense.

Jerry Trump was a janitor who was working at the Columbia Daily Tribune the night Kent Heitholt was murdered and saw two men leave the scene, but said he couldn't identify them. According to the complaint, Haws visited Jerry Trump while he was in prison for a parole violation and coerced him into identifying Ferguson and Charles "Chuck" Erickson as the men he saw that night. Trump agreed, fearing that prosecutors would press additional charges against him and keep him in prison.

During the trial, Jerry Trump testified that he recognized Ferguson and Erickson when his wife emailed him a newspaper with their picture. Haws interviewed Barbara Trump before trial and she told him she didn't remember sending the article to her husband.

Haws didn't prepare reports of either interview, so neither Chief Prosecutor Kevin Crane nor the defense explicitly knew they took place. The appeals court opinion from November found that this information was crucial to the case and that if Ferguson's team had known about it, they would have had reason to question Jerry Trump's credibility. Instead, they focused their case only on discrediting Erickson.

Detective John Short didn't disclose interviews with two other witnesses, Michael Boyd and Kim Bennett, to either the defense or prosecution, according to the complaint.

Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson's lead attorney, also states that Detectives Brian Liebhart and Latisha Stroer, who were both investigating the case, didn't disclose interviews with Richard Walker, an inmate at Boone County Jail who claimed Ferguson confessed to him. Zellner states that Stroer and Liebhart told Walker what to say on camera, implicating Ferguson, and in turn he was removed from solitary confinement. Walker also wrote several letters to Liebhart, which Zellner alleges Liebhart destroyed without making notes of their content or disclosing that they existed.

Zellner states that Liebhart, Detective Jeff Westbrook and Short failed to disclose the coercive interview tactics they used against Dallas Mallory, a friend of Ferguson and Erickson who told investigators he saw them the night Heitholt died. Mallory said Erickson claimed to have beat someone up that night. Zellner claims Mallory didn't see either of them that night and only said he did after being threatened and coerced by the police. Zellner states police placed Mallory in a small room, called him a liar when he denied seeing Erickson, told him he couldn't leave until he told the truth, refused to let him eat or use the phone and threatened to put a hold on his car and charge him with murder until he agreed to their version of events.

Zellner states that Sgt. Stephen Monticelli and Chief of Police Randy Boehm either approved of, or were indifferent to, the tactics used by investigators.

Count 2: Fabrication of evidence

Against: Police officers

Zellner states that officers fabricated reports when they interviewed Walker, Mallory and Meghan Arthur. Arthur went to the Police Department to vouch for Ferguson's innocence, but Stroer "deliberately misquoted" her and wrote that Ferguson said "he and Erickson had done something stupid," according to the suit.

The complaint also alleges the officers fabricated the videotaped interview with Walker and that the information was used to get Erickson to confess and testify against Ferguson.

Count 3: Reckless or intentional failure to investigate

Against: Haws, prosecutor's investigator Ben White, police officers

The complaint alleges the Police Department purposely ignored evidence of Ferguson and Erickson's innocence and, as a result, conducted an investigation that didn't seek to find the true killer.

Count 4: Malicious prosecution

Against: Haws, White, police officers

The complaint alleges that officers maliciously prosecuted Ferguson when they knew there was no probable cause.

Count 5: Conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights

Against: Haws, White, police officers

The complaint alleges that officers and investigators conspired to withhold favorable evidence from Ferguson and to fabricate evidence against him. They also intentionally failed to conduct an investigation that would have established his innocence.

Count 6: Failure to intervene

Against: Haws, White, police officers

The defendants knew of each other's illegal activities but didn't intervene, according to the lawsuit.

Count 7: False arrest

Against: Police officers

Officers illegally arrested Ferguson without probable cause, according to the complaint.

Count 8: Defamation

Against: Crane, Boehm

The complaint states that Crane and Boehm defamed Ferguson in November 2013 when they made comments to the media that said they still believed he was guilty after his convictions were vacated. Boehm also said the investigation was conducted "ethically and professionally," which the complaint cites as further evidence that Ferguson was defamed.

For the statements to be defamatory, they must be false and cause harm to Ferguson.

Count 9: Indemnification

Against: The City of Columbia and Boone County

If this accusation is upheld, the city and county would be financially responsible for the wrongdoings of their employees, if they are found liable.

Rodney Uphoff, an MU law professor and expert on wrongful convictions, said generally cities can't be held liable for the actions of their individual employees, as established in Monell v. New York Department of Social Services. For the city or county to be held liable, Zellner would need to prove that the department had some involvement in or knowledge of the misdoing, such as failure by the department to not fix a systematic issue or provide adequate training.


Like what you see here? Become a member.


Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Comments

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.

advertisements