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Ryan Ferguson Awarded $10 Million in Damages After Vacated Conviction

Bridgit Bowden

Ryan Ferguson will receive $10 million in damages after civil rights violations by six former Columbia police officers led to a vacated conviction in the 2001 murder of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

On Monday afternoon, U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey awarded Ferguson $10 million for psychological damages — $1 million for each year he spent behind bars — and about $1 million for attorney's fees.

"We feel great about the result," Ferguson said. "We know this helps people who were wrongfully incarcerated. We believe this ruling will help them get the money that they deserve when they get out of prison for crimes they did not commit."

The award came after six former Columbia police officers were found liable for fabricating evidence and violating Ferguson's civil rights by coercing false witness testimony, falsifying evidence and neglecting to follow up on other potential leads while investigating the Heitholt murder.

In August 2015, Laughrey ruled in favor of Ferguson on most of his civil rights complaints, and in the past few days the officers signed a settlement agreement admitting to liability on the remaining counts.

The six former police detectives are Bryan Liebhard, Jeff Nichols, Lloyd Simons, John Short, Jeff Westbrook and current Columbia Police public information officer Latisha Stroer. The lawsuit initially also named the City of Columbia, Boone County and Kevin Crane, who prosecuted the case, but they were dropped from the civil suit previously.

The attorney for the city, Brad Letterman, was unable to answer whether the city's insurance would cover the damages for the officers. The city has paid Letterman's firm Schreimann, Rackers & Franka about $297,750 for its defense in the Ferguson case, said Sarah Perry, the city's risk manager.

The Law Offices of Kathleen Zellner will receive $854,000 in attorney's fees for her work on the civil case, while $150,000 will go to Ferguson for fees incurred for his criminal defense. Zellner, who worked pro bono to have Ferguson's conviction vacated in 2013, specializes in wrongful convictions.

She is best known for representing Steven Avery of the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer." Avery is fighting a murder conviction in Wisconsin.

Following Monday's hearing, Ferguson spoke briefly to reporters on the steps of the federal courthouse in Jefferson City. He said he did not want to speak much more about how the legal battles had affected his life but said the award will allow him to help other prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted. His father, Bill, echoed his son's sentiment when asked what was next for the family.

Dressed in a light gray suit jacket, tan pants and a striped tie, Ferguson, while on the stand for one hour and 14 minutes Monday, described a happy childhood and life up until March 10, 2004, when he was arrested at age 19 on first degree murder charges.

The Boone County Jail, where he spent 19 months, is "still to this day the worst place I've ever been in my entire life," Ferguson said.

He said corrections officers repeatedly mistreated him by denying him food or keeping him up at night. The whole experience of incarceration was frightening, he said.

When the topic of his incarceration came up in court, Ferguson grew visibly uncomfortable, looking down at his hands, slowly swiveling the black leather witness chair back and forth and adjusting and readjusting in his seat.

A Boston College trauma expert diagnosed Ferguson with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Zellner said, also noting his body language during the hearing. Sleep disturbances, hyper-vigilance, paranoia, anxiety and panic attacks were a few of the symptoms Ferguson described in court Monday.

Ferguson said he feared for his life when his three cellmates looked at him "like a piece of meat." He said he was placed in administrative segregation — or solitary confinement — several times, where the walls were covered in "blood and boogers," and he could hear the people around him talking to themselves and "losing their minds."

Ferguson said he is haunted by a persistent fear he will be arrested for a crime he did not commit. He goes to great lengths to ensure his whereabouts are always accounted for, such as parking near cameras at the grocery store and keeping receipts, he said. He wakes up in the middle of the night thinking he hears the sounds of the Boone County Jail again, he said.

His life is ruled by anxiety, Ferguson said.

"Do you feel as you sit here today, do you feel free?" Zellner asked during the hearing.

"I don't," Ferguson said, adding that he is jealous of people who are ignorant of how easily their lives can change forever. "I just want to go back to when I was 18 or 19 because I was just going to play basketball and enjoy my life. I can't find that peace."

Since his release from prison, Ferguson said he has had a hard time finding employment, aside from $60,000 he earned off a book deal and $100,000 from his participation in an MTV show, "Unlocking the Truth." Finding jobs and meeting people are both things he said he struggles with, and he does not expect them to improve.

"Unfortunately, I've had to accept over time that the toothpaste is out of the tube," Ferguson told Laughrey. "There are certain things done to you you can't forget."

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