Crime

Father of Ryan Ferguson prepares for legal battle over his released son’s imprisonment

Bill Ferguson expects his son’s lawsuit to go to trial next summer. His son, Ryan Ferguson, had been convicted in 2005 of a Columbia killing, but that sentence was vacated by a Missouri court last year.
Bill Ferguson expects his son’s lawsuit to go to trial next summer. His son, Ryan Ferguson, had been convicted in 2005 of a Columbia killing, but that sentence was vacated by a Missouri court last year. The Kansas City Star

In the year since his son’s release from prison, Bill Ferguson has been afforded a luxury that, in the previous decade, simply didn’t exist: free time.

Over the past 12 months, the 69-year-old father has attempted to fill the hours that were once devoted to proving his son’s innocence.

He has devoured 50 books, mostly biographies on history-related subjects. He took a three-week trip to South America last March. And his work as a Columbia real estate agent, which had very often taken a backseat to his son’s case, is once again bustling.

“I’m having, right now, the best year I’ve ever had in real estate,” he said during a recent phone interview.

But while he’s savoring the newfound freedom of the past year, he’s also preparing for a legal showdown he hopes will have far-reaching implications.

His son, Ryan Ferguson, had been convicted in 2005 of the death of a Columbia newspaper editor, but his sentence was vacated by an appeals panel last year.

Then, in March, the Ferguson family’s attorney, Chicago-based Kathleen Zellner, filed a civil rights lawsuit claiming violations on the part of Boone County, the city of Columbia and a slew of current and former members of the Columbia Police Department — though it has since been amended to include just six Columbia Police Department detectives involved with the case. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, originally sought $100 million in damages but now seeks no exact amount.

Assuming a settlement cannot be reached in the coming months — and Bill Ferguson is adamant that he, at least, has no interest in a deal — the case will go to trial in August 2015. Some of the same individuals who helped secure his son’s 2005 murder and robbery convictions would stand as defendants in a detailed lawsuit alleging, among other things, the fabrication of evidence and reckless or intentional failure to investigate.

As Bill Ferguson puts it, “The accusers have become the accused.”

In a court response to the most recent version of Ferguson’s civil complaint, the defendants denied the claims against them had any merit.

“There existed sufficient, good and/or probable cause and/or reasonable belief that (Ryan Ferguson) was involved in the crime with which he was charged,” attorneys for the six remaining defendants wrote in a response.

While the monetary demands of the lawsuit have garnered much attention, Bill Ferguson has been clear that money is not the only objective. Instead, he sees this case as an opportunity to shine a light upon the issue of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Not only does he want those he believes played a role in his son’s conviction held accountable, he hopes the case can help spark legislation that would bring stiffer penalties for prosecutors and members of law enforcement who are proven to have acted maliciously.

“Quite honestly,” he says, “until a couple of prosecutors and a couple of policemen go to prison for a significant amount of time for lying or committing Brady violations (regarding evidence), this will continue.”

The 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt quickly became one of the most high-profile crimes in the history of the 115,000-resident college town.

For two years, police were essentially stumped. In 2004, they received an apparent break in the case when Charles Erickson, a former student at Rock Bridge High School, told authorities he’d begun having dreams suggesting he had been involved in the killing. During questioning, Erickson eventually claimed he’d taken part in the murder, along with an accomplice: then-classmate Ryan Ferguson.

Despite consistently denying any involvement, Ryan was sentenced in 2005 to 40 years in prison on second-degree murder and first-degree robbery charges.

Over the ensuing decade, however, the case shifted significantly as a series of interviews, media reports and retracted testimony raised questions about Ryan’s participation in the crime.

Zellner eventually agreed to take on Ryan’s case pro bono, and over the next few years, the case slowly worked its way through the legal system before a 2013 opinion of a panel of judges for the Western District of the appellate court vacated Ryan’s conviction.

Their decision was based on the grounds that the prosecution had withheld evidence from defense attorneys that could have helped Ferguson at trial.

Whether the family’s current case ultimately succeeds — both monetarily and in the attention Ferguson hopes to generate to the issue — may depend on how a jury views the events leading up to Ryan’s conviction.

The potential for legal reform could be aided by a high-profile court victory, said Ben Trachtenberg, an associate law professor at the University of Missouri. But it’s important to keep in mind, Trachtenberg notes, that not every person who has a sentence vacated is going to be awarded damages.

“I think a lot of people have this misconception that if you’re sent to prison, and there’s some mistake and you’re released, you’re going to get a big check,” Trachtenberg said. “And that’s not necessarily true.”

But while Zellner agrees she can’t predict a jury’s actions, she remains confident.

Ryan Ferguson “has a very good chance of getting one of the highest verdicts in the United States,” Zellner said. “Because there have been very few people who have brought civil suit actions that don’t have some type of prior history or baggage. And he does not have baggage.”

As he awaits the upcoming trial, meanwhile, Ryan Ferguson has settled into a new life. He wrote a book that is set to be published in January by Tarcher, an imprint of Penguin Random House publishing. And though he left Missouri following his release from prison, moving to the Fort Myers, Fla., area, he has remained close with his father, the two seeing each other whenever possible.

Last month, on the one-year anniversary of Ryan’s release, the two spent the day in Columbia. Over the course of a 24-hour visit, they packed in as many activities as possible. They went to dinner and to the Tiger Hotel — the site of a press conference held on the day of Ryan Ferguson’s release a year earlier. They rang the bell in front of the courthouse and the following morning played basketball together at a local church gymnasium.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the elder Ferguson spoke fondly of the reunion — and like Zellner, expressed confidence in the pending litigation.

Despite the family’s experience, he remains confident in the system.

“The justice system is a good system — we have the best justice system in the world,” Ferguson said. “But it’s only as strong as the people that are administering it.”

To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816-234-4039 or send email to darnett@kcstar.com.

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