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Mo. man freed in editor's death sues for $100M

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 8:09 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — A man recently released from prison when a Missouri court overturned his conviction in a sports editor's death is seeking $100 million in damages in a federal civil rights lawsuit against seven police detectives, a prosecutor turned judge and a former police chief.

The 50-page suit says Columbia, Mo., police fabricated evidence against Ryan Ferguson, bullied witnesses and ignored other leads in their investigation into the 2001 killing of Kent Heitholt, a Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, asks for actual damages of $75 million and compensatory damages of $25 million. It names the city of Columbia, its police department, Boone County and two investigators for the county prosecutor's office.

Ferguson spent nearly a decade in prison but was released in November 2013 when an appeals court panel ruled that prosecutors wrongly withheld evidence from the defense. Missouri's attorney general opted not to retry Ferguson, who has since moved to Florida to avoid the glare of attention in his hometown.

His case gained national attention because his high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, claimed to have recalled through dreams years after the fact that he and Ferguson had killed Heitholt during a late-night robbery after a Halloween of partying. Erickson has since recanted his testimony but is in prison. Ferguson says his former high school classmate is innocent.

In his release, Ferguson received a veritable hero's welcome in Columbia during a celebratory news conference, with his new girlfriend by his side. But the lawsuit suggests Ferguson has faced a difficult adjustment.

“Ryan's new identity upon walking out of prison is that of a 29-year-old uneducated, jobless man without health care or funds for psychological counseling,” the suit said. “For years, he was branded as a brutal murderer, and those scars cannot be excised.”

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