St. Louis • A man recently released from prison after a Missouri court overturned his conviction in a sports editor’s death is seeking $100 million in damages in a federal civil rights lawsuit against seven police detectives, a prosecutor turned judge and a former police chief.
The 50-page suit says Columbia, Mo., police fabricated evidence against Ryan Ferguson, bullied witnesses and ignored other leads in their investigation into the 2001 killing of Kent Heitholt, a Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor. The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, asks for actual damages of $75 million and compensatory damages of $25 million. It also names the city of Columbia, its police department, Boone County and two investigators for the county prosecutor’s office.
Ferguson spent nearly a decade in prison but was released in November 2013 after an appeals court panel ruled that prosecutors wrongly withheld evidence from the defense. Missouri’s attorney general opted to not retry Ferguson, who has since moved to Florida to avoid the glare of attention in his hometown.
His case gained national attention because his high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, claimed to have recalled through dreams years after the fact that he and Ferguson had killed Heitholt during a late-night robbery after a Halloween of partying. Erickson has since recanted his testimony but is still in prison. Ferguson says his former high school classmate is also innocent.
After his release, Ferguson received a veritable hero’s welcome in Columbia at a celebratory news conference, with his new girlfriend by his side. But the lawsuit suggests Ferguson has faced a difficult adjustment.
"Ryan’s new identity upon walking out of prison is that of a 29-year-old uneducated, jobless man without health care or funds for psychological counseling," the suit said. "For years he was branded as a brutal murderer and those scars cannot be excised."
Police spokeswoman Latisha Stroer, who is the only police officer named in the lawsuit who still works for the department, and Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, who prosecuted Ferguson, did not immediately respond to interview requests. Former Columbia police chief Randy Boehm referred a request for comment to the city attorney, who was unavailable Tuesday.
As in Ferguson’s successful appeal, the civil rights complaint raises questions about the possible involvement of Michael Boyd, a one-time Tribune sports writer.
Boyd has provided conflicting statements about when he left work the night of Heitholt’s murder and changed his accounts of which of two cars he was driving that night. The new suit says papers belonging to Boyd were found at the crime scene, and that Boyd and Heitholt had a "major dispute" over a mistake made by Boyd on an assignment from his boss.
Boyd, who is now sports editor of the Ste. Genevieve Herald in southeastern Missouri, declined a request for comment. He has denied playing any role in Heitholt’s death and testified at Ferguson’s appeal only after attorney Kathleen Zellner agreed to not discuss Boyd as a potential suspect at the hearing.
The civil rights suit was filed on the 10th anniversary of Ferguson’s first police interrogation.
"I found myself in an interrogation room being threatened and lied to by the very people we expect to protect us," he wrote on the Freed Ryan Ferguson Facebook page. "The people whose (sole) responsibility it is to seek justice ... at least that’s the common misperception portrayed to the public."
"Ten years ago today, I never would have believed I’d end up spending almost my entire twenties in prison for a crime I had nothing to do with. But I did. Can’t change that. An apology would be nice though. "
Ferguson was a 17-year-old high school junior at the time of Heitholt’s slaying. He was convicted in 2005 and had been serving a 40-year sentence for murder and robbery.
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