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Columbia police officers respond in appeal of Ryan Ferguson lawsuit

The lawyer for a group of current and former Columbia police officers filed their response in the ongoing federal court battle related to Ryan Ferguson’s lawsuit.

The six officers appealed a judge’s decision in December to only dismiss some of the claims Ferguson made against them in his multi-million dollar federal suit. The officers contributed to the investigation that ultimately convicted Ferguson in 2005 of murder, and sent him to prison for eight years. A state appeals court reversed the conviction in 2013, and Ferguson was released shortly after that.

The officers, Bryan Liebhart, Jeff Nichols, John Short, Lloyd Simons, Latisha Stroer and Jeff Westbrook, all claim “qualified immunity” should guard them from legal action. Feguson’s attorney Kathleen Zellner said that the appeals court should send it back to a lower court for trial. District court Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled in August that enough “factual disputes exist” of negligence in the investigation for a jury to decide in the case.

Brad Letterman, attorney for the six officers, wrote that they did not violate Ferguson’s civil rights through their investigation of Kent Heitholt’s murder in 2001. Zellner and attorney Samuel Henderson said “fabricated” reports helped convince Erickson he and Ferguson played a part in Heitholt’s death. Dallas Mallory and Megan Arthur both gave depositions, Ferguson’s brief claimed, that police either coerced or twisted words in their interviews. Letterman wrote that since neither Mallory nor Arthur testified at Ferguson’s trial, Ferguson could not claim those reports violated his civil rights.

“The law is clear that the allegedly fabricated evidence (in this case the Mallory and Arthur reports) must have been introduced at his trial,” the brief reads. “They were not. Thus, there was no constitutional violation.”

The brief repeatedly cites the police report taken from Erickson’s first interview with Columbia police in March 2004. While Erickson initially appeared confused in the interview about what was used to strangle Heitholt, the brief said Erickson admitted to police he helped kill the Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor before being “fed” any information about the crime. Zellner and Henderson both argue that it is not Erickson’s eventual guilty plea that violated Ferguson’s rights, but the “fabricated” reports that made Erickson think he played a part in the murder – one he initially said he could not remember.

The U.S. 8th Cirtcuit Court of Appeals has not yet set a date to hear arguments on the matter.

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