COLUMBIA — A former Columbia Police Department officer who was named in Ryan Ferguson’s civil rights lawsuit said Tuesday that officers in the department did not fabricate evidence while investigating the 2001 murder of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
“Of those officers that were named in the suit, we absolutely, 100 percent did nothing wrong,” said Jeff Westbrook, who is one of six officers named in the suit. “My honor and integrity is probably the most important thing to me, and I would never be party to anything like what” they were accused of.
Westbrook said he wanted to speak out after U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey on Monday awarded Ferguson a total of $11 million — $10 million for psychological damages and $1 million for his attorneys fees.
Westbrook was an investigator with the police department for 23 years and has been retired for seven years. The other police detectives named in the lawsuit are Bryan Liebhard, Jeff Nichols, Lloyd Simons, John Short and current police public information officer Latisha Stroer. The lawsuit also initially named the City of Columbia, Boone County and Kevin Crane, who prosecuted the case, but they were dropped from the civil suit previously.
Ferguson’s first-degree murder conviction was vacated in November 2013. Following his release from prison, attorney Kathleen Zellner filed a $100 million lawsuit alleging those involved in the murder investigation violated Ferguson’s civil rights by fabricating evidence and coercing false testimony from witnesses. Zellner specializes in wrongful convictions and is best known for representing Steven Avery of the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”
During the afternoon bench trial in Jefferson City, Laughrey repeatedly sought to erase a distinction the officers’ attorney, Brad Letterman, tried to make between a legal finding of liability for the officers and whether their agreement to a settlement in the case was an admittance of liability.
This past week, the six officers signed a settlement agreement with Ferguson which settled the liability portion of the lawsuit — meaning a court only needed to assess the damages Ferguson was due. Laughrey said before she awarded damages she wanted to make sure, “that the defendants have in fact acknowledged liability.”
“My clients deny liability, but they consent to … judgment being entered,” Letterman told Laughrey.
Laughrey stressed that the court would be finding the officers liable if she were to enter judgment.
“The court will enter a judgment of liability (and) it means in fact these defendants are liable for constitutional violations” against Ferguson, Laughrey said.
Westbrook said he wanted the liability portion of the case to go to trial instead of reaching a settlement. But, he said, the officers involved in the lawsuit only agreed to settle because their attorney told them the question the court was trying to answer wasn’t whether the officers did anything wrong but whether Zellner could lead a jury to believe they did.
“When you look at the anti-police sentiment going around, there are a lot of people who just think that officers are bad people,” Westbrook said. “But these are the finest people I’ve ever known in my life.”
Some of the officers thought they could win a jury trial, but it was no guarantee, Westbrook said. The fear was that a jury trial loss may result in a damage award beyond what the city’s insurance would be willing to cover, he said. Any award beyond what the city’s insurance would cover could mean the officers would have to pay out of pocket or lose assets. The settlement agreement they signed stipulated that the officers would not admit wrongdoing but that the city would be willing to pay the damage award, he said.
Westbrook said he is afraid that with current anti-police sentiment, people might believe the Columbia Police Department violates people’s rights. He said bad policing practices may happen in other cities, but they don’t happen in Columbia. Some officers are better than others and some make mistakes, he said, but no one he knows would ever conspire against someone to wrongfully convict them.
“The Ferguson group has done a good job convincing people that poor Ryan was railroaded,” Westbrook said, adding that the national attention the case had drawn scared a few of the officers. “I’m kind of concerned with how things are today that someone might try to come to my house.”
The city issued a news release Tuesday afternoon with details about the settlement agreement with Ferguson. The city and its insurance company will pay a total of $2.75 million of the $11 million judgment.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.