Ryan Ferguson, the Missouri man whose conviction for killing a newspaper editor was overturned four years ago, has reached a settlement in the multi-million-dollar wrongful conviction lawsuit he filed over his 2004 arrest.
Represented by noted post-conviction lawyer Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson sued members of the Columbia Police Department and a former prosecutor. The settlement agreement has not been signed as of Thursday morning, but it is expected to be finalized within the next two weeks. The amount of the settlement has not been disclosed.
It was reported back in 2014 that Ferguson was seeking $100 million from 13 defendants. Zellner had no comment on the amount he will receive in the settlement but said the suit was not for $100 million.
“The confusion about the $100 million figure apparently came from the original complaint which sought $10 million for each count because Ferguson was incarcerated for 10 years,” Zellner said in an e-mail, adding that the average wrongful-conviction settlement in the United States is $500,000 per year of incarceration.
Ferguson’s case grabbed national attention after Ken Heitholt, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, was found beaten and strangled in the newspaper’s parking lot on November 1, 2001. Two witnesses, including a janitor named Jerry Trump, told police they saw two college-age men near the editor’s car and that one of them indicated someone was hurt. The witnesses called 911.
Ferguson, a 17-year-old high school student, and his friend, Charles Erickson, had been at nearby Halloween parties and a local bar the night of the homicide.
The case went unsolved for two years until Erickson read a newspaper article about the case that included a sketch of a suspect. Believing the sketch resembled him, Erickson became nervous and told two friends that he may have had a role in the crime but couldn’t remember because he blacked out the night Heitholt was killed. His friends notified police, and Erickson was brought in for questioning.
During police interviews, Erickson said he couldn’t remember what happened because he was under the influence alcohol, cocaine, and prescription drugs. Although he said his memory was “foggy,” he told police he and Ferguson beat and robbed Heitholt. They were later arrested and charged with murder. Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Erickson received a 25-year sentence for testifying against his friend.
Ferguson maintained his innocent and was exonerated in 2013, four years after Zellner took his case pro bono. Zellner, who has brought similar allegations against Manitowoc County, Wisconsin officials in the Steven Avery case, was able to show that prosecutors in the Ferguson trial withheld exculpatory evidence and that Erickson and Trump lied about Ferguson’s involvement in the crime.
Trump, who also testified against Ferguson, later recanted, claiming Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane showed him a newspaper article about the killing and pressured him into putting Ferguson at the scene. Erickson made similar post-trial allegations against the ex-prosecutor and recanted his testimony.
The State of Missouri announced after Ferguson’s conviction was vacated that they would not retry him. Erickson remains behind bars.
In years following his exoneration, Ferguson has become a fitness professional, author, and media personality. He continues to advocate for Erickson’s release.
[Featured Image by Don Shrubshell/AP Images]