Boone County hires outside counsel to defend against Ryan Ferguson suit

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 2:48 p.m. CDT; updated 5:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 17, 2014

COLUMBIA — Boone County has hired four outside attorneys to help defend itself and three employees named in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Ryan Ferguson, whose murder conviction was vacated after he served nearly a decade behind bars.

Ferguson, who was convicted in 2005 of killing Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt before his conviction was vacated last year, filed an amended federal civil rights lawsuit earlier this month against Boone County, former prosecuting attorney Kevin Crane, and investigators Ben White and William Haws. The lawsuit also names the city of Columbia and eight former Columbia police employees.

Ferguson says his civil rights were violated when he was deprived of due process, which prohibits the government from unfairly depriving individuals of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.

The appeals court found that the prosecution, led by Crane, withheld evidence favorable to Ferguson's defense.

The lawsuit claims Boone County and the other defendants withheld evidence, failed to investigate other suspects and defamed Ferguson.

The Boone County Commission on Tuesday authorized county counselor C.J. Dykhouse to hire outside counsel. Hiring different attorneys for each party connected to the county will reduce the possibility of legal conflict, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.

"We're trying to ensure we get out of the gate with everybody protected with non-conflicted counsel," Dykhouse said.

The county is also working to find money to defend against the lawsuit. Part of the county counselor's $274,000 budget is dedicated to outside counsel but the "peculiar circumstances" of the Ferguson lawsuit will require more funds, Dykhouse said. The county's insurance policy does not cover any possible claims from the federal lawsuit, he said.

The commission order also requires employees named in the lawsuit to cooperate with the investigation and specifies that the commission will not be required to pay any part of a claim or judgment for punitive damages or to pay damages beyond the limits of insurance policies.

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