From 2004 onward, Ryan Ferguson spent nearly a decade behind bars, framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Only in 2013 did the Missouri Court of Appeals (Western District) overturn his conviction, acting on information that key pieces of evidence had been intentionally withheld from the defense during trial.
On Monday, Judge Nanette Laughrey awarded Ferguson $11 million – $1 million for each year he was imprisoned, as well as an additional amount intended to cover his legal expenses.
“There’s not any amount of money that would compensate him,” said Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson’s attorney. “But it’s a recognition by the court that his constitutional rights were violated, specifically that the evidence was fabricated against him, and that this was a reckless investigation.”
Despite the harsh rhetoric targeted at law enforcement, the detectives who purportedly misconstrued the facts of the Ferguson case won’t have to admit any wrongdoing. Per the terms of the settlement, six officers involved in investigating and prosecuting Ferguson will have their assets and honor protected, although the damage to their reputations may already have been done.
“My honor and integrity is probably the most important thing for me,” said retired Columbia, MO, detective Jeff Westbrook. “I would never, ever violate someone’s rights or do something inappropriate, nor would any of the people I worked with. I guarantee, unequivocally, without one shred of doubt, that no one did anything wrong in working this investigation or this case.”
Judge Laughrey didn’t seem to agree with Westbrook’s assessment.
As part of the settlement, Laughrey extended protection to the officers’ assets but said they were responsible for civil rights violations.
“We’ve got admitted liability,” said Zellner, remarking on the apparent lack of consequence for the officers. “That’s what the judge made crystal clear.”
ABC 17 reports the city of Columbia, MO, will pay $2.75 million of the settlement amount out-of-pocket. The remainder is owed by The Travelers Companies, which the judge in the settlement found had ‘wrongfully’ denied the city coverage in 2014, despite extending protection throughout the period Ferguson had been incarcerated.
Ryan Ferguson was convicted and incarcerated in 2005 for the murder of Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt four years earlier.
A three-judge panel found Ferguson guilty of robbery and murder.
A friend of Ferguson, Charles Erickson, also recanted damning testimony he’d provided the prosecution. Erickson claimed he’d been coerced by prosecutor Kevin Crane into assisting the case.
Ferguson and his attorney claim that the prosecution and police investigators spearheading the conviction withheld evidence relating to the timeline of events on the night of Heitholt’s murder.