COLUMBIA — Ryan Ferguson will settle a portion of his $100 million lawsuit against six members of the Columbia Police Department for wrongful conviction in the murder of Kent Heitholt, his father confirmed Tuesday.
The suit, which alleges that city police officers violated Ryan Ferguson's civil rights by coercing false witness testimony, falsifying evidence and neglecting to follow up on other potential case leads, is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in July to determine damages. Defendants in the case are former police detectives Bryan Liebhard, Jeff Nichols, Lloyd Simons, John Short, Jeff Westbrook and Columbia Police public information officer Latisha Stroer.
According to an online filing in U.S. District Court Western District, a settlement on the liability portion of the case is awaiting signatures and should be final by the end of this week or early next week. Attorneys for both Ferguson and the officers provided the status of the settlement during a Tuesday teleconference with U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey.
During a previous teleconference in May, attorneys stated a settlement on the issue was only tentative. Details of the final agreement have not been disclosed publicly.
Ferguson was convicted of the high-profile 2001 slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. His murder and robbery convictions were vacated in 2013 after he served nearly a decade in prison. His co-defendant in the case, Charles Erickson, who testified that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt, remains in prison.
Following his November 2013 release, Ferguson sued city and county officials, police detectives and Kevin Crane, who prosecuted the case for Boone County. In August 2015, Laughrey ruled in favor of Ferguson on most of his complaints, and the case was scheduled for trial on remaining counts alleging officer misconduct and reckless investigation.
Kathleen Zellner, whose pro-bono legal efforts helped secure Ferguson’s release from prison, filed the suit in March 2014 seeking $75 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
Zellner could not be reached immediately for comment Tuesday afternoon. She is well known for successfully fighting multiple, high-profile wrongful conviction cases — among them the case of Steven Avery in Wisconsin, the subject of a Netflix documentary series.
Brad Letterman, attorney for the city, could also not be reached immediately for comment.
Bill Ferguson, Ryan’s father, confirmed the settlement on Tuesday afternoon but said he did not want to comment on the agreement until after it was signed. A bench trial will now determine how much the family will receive in damages.
Bill Ferguson said the legal battles to get his son released from prison were a big ordeal for the family. The civil case seeking damages is anti-climactic in comparison.
According to previous Missourian reporting, Bill Ferguson estimated that funding the legal efforts to free his son from prison cost about $250,000.
Since his son’s release, the family has been focused on spending time together, he said. They've visited Paris, London and Australia, where Ryan was born, he said.
“Once he got out we were just relieved and ready to move on,” Bill Ferguson said. “For us, we are not so concerned about the settlement.”