COLUMBIA — A U.S. District Court judge's ruling filed Tuesday says that the six defendants in Ryan Ferguson's $100 million wrongful conviction lawsuit don't have qualified immunity.
Ferguson was convicted in 2005 for the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. After serving 10 years of a 40-year sentence, he was released in 2013 on a Brady violation, which means the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense during trial.
The six defendants in the suit are five former and one current Columbia police officers who had a role in the investigation of Heitholt's slaying that resulted in the arrest of Ferguson and Charles Erickson. The suit filed by Kathleen Zellner alleges the six people violated Ferguson's constitutional rights by fabricating evidence and conducting a reckless investigation.
Defense attorney Bradley Letterman argued the detectives should be granted qualified immunity in the case, which protects public officials from civil liability unless they violate a person's statutory or constitutional rights.
U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled the defendants don't have qualified immunity on five counts in the suit because Ferguson had a viable constitutional claim.
In the ruling, Laughrey listed instances that supported Ferguson's claim of reckless investigation including:
- Officers coaching of co-defendant Erickson, Dallas Mallory, Megan Arthur and Richard Walker — witnesses in the criminal case against Ferguson;
- The police statement that Erickson was on the "chopping block;"
- The pursuit of prosecution despite the absence of Ferguson and Erickson's fingerprints at the crime scene and their lack of resemblance to the suspects described by two witnesses.
Erickson took a plea deal for testifying against Ferguson in the criminal case, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, where he remains. In the lawsuit, Ferguson claimed that detectives induced Erickson to testify against him.
Letterman argued that because the confession was never introduced as evidence against Ferguson, and because Erickson had an opportunity to recant his statement, Ferguson's constitutional rights weren't violated.
Laughrey ruled that using Erickson's confession, knowing it "contained" fabricated evidence, could be seen as a violation of Ferguson's constitutional rights — even if a jury felt the confession were true, or if police didn't know it contained fabricated evidence. Laughrey said Ferguson successfully showed that he was harmed by the defendants and why it "shook the conscience" — two benchmarks for claiming a violation of constitutional rights.
The suit seeks $75 million in compensatory and actual damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.