COLUMBIA– Ryan Ferguson’s $100 million civil rights lawsuit lost one of its defendants Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey dismissed multiple claims made against four of the thirteen defendants named in the lawsuit, including the defamation claim and the Monell claim against former Boone County prosecutor and current 13th Circuit Judge Kevin Crane.
Bill Ferguson, Ryan Ferguson's father, said he wasn't surprised by the decision and that his son's legal team had expected some dismissals. Ferguson also emphasized the large amount of counts remaining in the suit.
"We weren't surprised," Ferguson said. "And when you look at the other allegations, the judge sustained 90 percent of them, so we're happy with that."
As for Crane, Bill Ferguson said the Ferguson family expects to pursue further legal action against the former prosecutor.
"He'll have his day in court later on — after this lawsuit," Ferguson said. "We haven't looked that far down the road yet."
In her decision, Laughrey dismissed with prejudice the two defamation claims made against Crane and former Columbia Police Department Chief Randy Boehm for making comments to the media saying they still believed Ryan Ferguson to be guilty following the vacation of his convictions.
Laughrey wrote that both men were clearly stating their opinions — not objective, verifiable facts — when speaking to the press.
"Statements of opinion are absolutely privileged even if they are made maliciously," Laughrey wrote.
Because the claims were dismissed with prejudice, they cannot be reintroduced by the plaintiff later in the case.
The Monell claims against Crane and Boehm, which alleged they fostered unconstitutional policies and practices in their official capacities during the Ferguson investigation, were also dismissed with prejudice.
However, Laughrey sustained the Monell claims against the city of Columbia and Boone County. She stated the city and county, not their employees, are the real parties in an official-capacity suit.
Both entities had asked for the claims to be dismissed on the grounds that the Ferguson complaint did not specify an unconstitutional policy or custom. But Laughrey found that the Monell claims — named after a 1978 Supreme Court decision that established precedent for suing local governments that implemented unconstitutional policies — do not require specification of a single policy or pattern of unconstitutional conduct.
Laughrey said the city had an "obvious" responsibility to teach its officers their Brady obligations to document and provide exculpatory evidence, which is sufficient to sustain the claims. The judge also denied the county's motion to dismiss the claims on similar grounds.
Although the Monell and defamation claims against Boehm were dismissed, the former police chief is still a defendant in the case on counts of fabrication of and suppression of evidence. Laughrey also denied county investigator Ben White’s petition to dismiss allegations of failure to investigate and conspiracy to deprive Ryan Ferguson of his constitutional rights.
Laughrey did dismiss the malicious prosecution claims against White, Boehm, and former Columbia police Sgt. Stephen Monticelli, but without prejudice. Ferguson’s attorneys have 20 days to modify the claim and bring it back into the case.
Ryan Ferguson was convicted of the 2001 murder of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in 2005 and spent eight years in prison.
He was released from prison in November after the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District vacated his convictions because the prosecution didn't disclose certain information to the defense, constituting a Brady violation. Attorney General Chris Koster elected not to retry the case.
Ryan Ferguson’s lawyers filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in March, seeking $75 million in compensatory and actual damages and $25 million in punitive damages. Other defendants in the lawsuit include county investigator William Haws and six former detectives involved in the investigation.
Supervising editor is Ted Hart.