COLUMBIA — In a ruling filed Wednesday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sent Ryan Ferguson's $100 million lawsuit against six people from the Columbia Police Department back to the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, which must decide on the issue of qualified immunity.

Defense attorney Bradley Letterman asked the appeals court last month to consider qualified immunity — which shields public officials from civil liability — for former detectives John Short, Jeff Nichols, Jeff Westbrook, Bryan Liebhart and Lloyd Simons and Columbia Police spokeswoman Latisha Stroer.

Qualified immunity would prevent the lawsuit from moving forward. 

In August 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled in favor of Ferguson's claims that the detectives wrongly prosecuted him, withheld and fabricated evidence, failed to investigate other possible suspects and manipulated and coerced witnesses into giving false testimony, according to court documents.

A week before the case was set to go to trial in 2015, Letterman filed to appeal her decision. In response, Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson's attorney, filed to dismiss the appeal. Zellner filed to dismiss it because the defense did not bring up the immunity defense in district court, she said in an email. 

The appellate court denied Zellner's motion.

Letterman told the appeals court that he had asked Laughrey to consider qualified immunity for the detectives in the case. But the appeals court had a different perspective. In their decision, the judges wrote that qualified immunity "made only a brief cameo appearance" in the district court's opinion.

"The appellate court is not asking the trial court to reconsider whether the police defendants have qualified immunity because Laughrey never ruled on that in the first place," Zellner said Wednesday.

Ferguson was in prison for 10 years of his 40-year sentence for the murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. He was released in November 2013 on a Brady violation, which means the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense during trial.

Zellner is asking for $75 million in compensatory and actual damages and $25 million in punitive damages for his wrongful conviction.

Supervising editor is Ellen Cagle.

  • I'm a public health and safety reporter for the Columbia Missourian. You can reach me at elizabethloutfi@mizzou.edu or give me a follow @ElizabethLoutfi.

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