COLUMBIA — The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday that Ryan Ferguson's $100 million lawsuit against six people in the Columbia Police Department should not go forward because the defendants have qualified immunity.
Ferguson was convicted for the murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in 2005. He spent nearly 10 years of his 40-year sentence behind bars before his convictions were vacated in 2013.
The lawsuit alleges that Columbia Police detectives fabricated evidence, manipulated and coerced witnesses into giving false testimony and failed to investigate other possible suspects. The defendants in the case are former police detectives John Short, Jeff Nichols, Jeff Westbrook, Bryan Liebhart and Columbia Police Public Information Officer Latisha Stroer.
Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson’s attorney, is asking for $75 million in compensatory and actual damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
In August 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey sided with Ferguson on nearly all of his complaints, according to the Columbia Tribune. A week before the case was scheduled to go to trial, defense attorney Bradley Letterman appealed Laughrey’s decision.
On Wednesday, before a panel of judges — Roger L. Wollman, Morris S. Arnold and Jane L. Kelly — Letterman argued that his clients should be granted qualified immunity in the case. Qualified immunity is granted to public officials and protects them from civil liability unless they violate an individual’s statutory or constitutional rights.
However, the three judges agreed it was unclear whether Letterman asked for qualified immunity in the U.S. District Court. They will decide if Laughrey must review the matter.
“The court, should it address qualified immunity here, is going to have to hold that Mr. Erickson’s testimony to the Missouri state court, which he’s still in prison for, was not correct,” Letterman said. “It had to say that he didn’t knowingly and truthfully plead guilty.”
Letterman also said some of the evidence in Zellner's lawsuit — interviews with witnesses Dallas Mallory and Megan Arthur — had no part in the case because they were never used in the 2005 trial and the two witnesses never testified.
But Zellner said the fact that Erickson is still in prison has no bearing on the case. The police reports, she said, were fabricated from interviews and then used to make Erickson believe that he and Ferguson were both guilty.
“Mr. Ferguson has a right to not be convicted on fabricated evidence or reckless investigation regardless of who’s still in prison,” she said.
A clerk for the appeals court said there is no deadline for when the appeals court must make its decision.
The lawsuit, filed March 10, 2014, originally listed 13 defendants in the case. Seven have been dropped:
- the city of Columbia
- Boone County
- former Columbia Police Sgt. Stephen Monticelli
- former Chief Randy Boehm
- Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office investigator William Haws
- Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office investigator Ben White
- then-prosecuting attorney Kevin Crane, who is now a circuit court judge in the 13th Circuit of Boone County.
The defendants were dropped without prejudice, which means they could become defendants again at a later date, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed