Earlier this month, Ryan Ferguson – the Columbia man who spent nearly 10 years of a 40 year sentence in jail for a robbery and murder that he didn’t commit – announced that he was filing a $100 million lawsuit against the police and prosecutors who conducted his case, alleging constitutional violations, false arrest, defamation, and fabrication and suppression of evidence.
Here is a quick summary of the alleged prosecutorial misconduct in Ferguson’s case from the National Registry of Exonerations:
In February 2011, Ferguson filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Cole County, where he was incarcerated. The petition alleged that Trump had recanted his trial testimony that his wife had mailed him the newspaper with the story about the Heitholt murder. In fact, Trump said, the prosecution had reached out to him and showed him the newspaper, and that he falsely identified Ferguson and Erickson so that he would be released from prison. The prosecution denied showing the newspaper to Trump.
In addition, the petition alleged that Erickson had expanded his recantation to say that he was not involved in the murder and neither was Ferguson. Moreover, the petition alleged that the prosecution had interviewed Trump’s wife before Ferguson’s trial and she told them that she had not sent any newspaper articles to Trump.
According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Ferguson is suing former Boone County prosecutor-turned-Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, and Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office investigators William Haws and Ben White along with 11 other defendants:
The Columbia Police Department, city of Columbia and Boone County are named as defendants, the latter two because they indemnify the others accused. Individuals named are police detectives John Short, the department’s lead investigator in the case; Jeff Nichols; Jeff Westbrook; Bryan Liebhart; Latisha Stroer; Lloyd Simons; then-Sgt. Stephen Monticelli; and then-Chief Randy Boehm. All officers except Stroer have since retired. Stroer, who declined to comment for this story, now serves in the department’s public information unit…
Haws is now a case specialist in the prosecutor’s office, and White still works as an investigator. Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, who was county prosecutor at the time and tried the case, and Boehm are accused of making disparaging remarks about Ferguson to local media after Ferguson was released.
The bar to win such a lawsuit is high. Legal experts interviewed by the Tribune suggest Ferguson has a shot with some of his claims, but absolute immunity will protect the former prosecutor, Crane:
When it comes to Crane, who is only listed in the suit as a defendant in the defamation claim, he can’t be sued in his capacity as prosecutor because of a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that provides prosecutors with absolute immunity, Uphoff said. The Supreme Court used that precedent in a controversial 5-4 decision in 2011 that reversed a jury trial verdict that awarded a Louisiana man $14 million for being wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder. John Thompson was found innocent 18 years later because prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence, a violation of another precedent-setting Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, decided in the 1960s. That case enshrined in federal law that prosecutors must share all exculpatory evidence with the other side.
“Unless the plaintiffs can show there is negligence on the part of the city in their training or supervision,” winning will be unlikely, “or sometimes it’s cast as a negligent hiring case,” Uphoff said. “The plaintiff has to show it’s more than one employee acting wrongfully.”
In Connick v. Thompson, the case of the Louisiana man, the district attorney in the case admitted his office needed better training and that he didn’t understand “the duty he was supposed to impart,” which led to an office with one of America’s worst records in failing to share evidence, according to a 2011 New York Times editorial.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said Thompson failed to prove that “the office ‘disregarded a known or obvious consequence’ of its inaction,” the Times’ editorial board wrote.
Because of that decision, Uphoff said, Ferguson’s main attorney, Chicago-based Kathleen Zellner, and her colleagues are going to have to show not only did the police and investigators purposefully fabricate reports and evidence and bullied or coerced witnesses into making incriminating statements, as the complaint alleges, but also that Boehm and Crane knew about it but did nothing.
Read a longer description of the misconduct in Ferguson’s case in our previous post here.