Kathleen Zellner, Ryan Ferguson’s attorney, on Monday filed a civil rights lawsuit in his name, alleging fabricated evidence and a lack of a complete police investigation into the murder of Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt and malfeasance by the Boone County Prosecutor’s Office.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, asks for actual damages of $75 million and punitive damages of $25 million. Among the nine counts alleged are malicious prosecution, conspiracy to deprive Ferguson of his constitutional rights, defamation, false arrest and destruction and/or suppression of exculpatory evidence.
Zellner also demands a jury trial and names a total of 13 defendants, including the City of Columbia, Columbia Police Department and Boone County. Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, who was the county prosecutor at the time and tried the case, as well as current Boone County Case Specialist William Haws are also named. Haws was an investigator at the time and was a key figure in the court hearing that eventually won Ferguson his freedom last year.
Several detectives are also named, including John Short, the lead investigator in the case who is no longer with the department. Former Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm and former Sgt. Stephen Monticelli also are named as defendants. Monticelli eventually became deputy chief before he left the department a few years ago.
The 50-page complaint details the entire case of Heitholt’s brutal beating death in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2001, the arrests of Ferguson and his codefendant, Charles Erickson, the ensuing court trial and Ferguson’s fight for his freedom.
Ferguson was convicted in 2005 of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. He was arrested in March 2004 in Kansas City. The trial, which was covered by local and national media, and Ferguson’s story became high-profile news across the U.S. and made headlines in some international media.
Zellner successfully argued in fall 2013 that Crane and his team illegally withheld exculpatory evidence — known as a Brady violation for the landmark 1960s case that set the precedent in the U.S. — and Ferguson’s convictions were vacated in November. He was released Nov. 12. He spent 3,533 days in prison, according to the complaint, and never wavered from his assertion of innocence.
“Clearly, the goal of making an arrest for the Heitholt murder was used to justify obtaining Ryan’s conviction by any means, including concealing and fabricating evidence,” Zellner wrote in the complaint.
Two witnesses at the trial, including Erickson, later recanted their testimony that placed him at the scene of Heitholt’s death in the Tribune’s parking lot. Erickson was fed details of the murder by police and they fabricated evidence to support the story, the complaint alleges.
Erickson took a plea deal and was given 25 years in prison for the same charges Ferguson was convicted of after a jury trial. He still sits in a prison in south-central Missouri. His attorney, Laura O’Sullivan of the Kansas City-based Midwest Innocence Project, has said he is innocent and was manipulated into confessing. She also said she is working on filing a complaint in court to have him freed as well.
Via Columbia Tribune