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Cleared in 2001 murder, Missouri man sues for $100 million

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A Missouri man cleared of a murder conviction after nearly a decade in captivity has filed a $100 million lawsuit against police and prosecutors, alleging reckless investigation, destruction of evidence and other "abuse of power."

Ryan Ferguson, 29, was convicted in the 2001 murder of a newspaper sports editor in Columbia, Missouri, based largely on statements from witnesses who later recanted their testimony.

The Missouri Court of Appeals in November found prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have affected the witness testimony and other evidence that could have worked in Ferguson's favor. Ferguson was released a week later and the Missouri attorney general said it would not retry him.

"Ryan was deprived of economic opportunities and suffered economic harm," lawyers for Ferguson wrote in the lawsuit. "Even more so, Ryan endured incalculable mental anguish and emotional pain and suffered separation from his family and friends and lived in an environment where any day he could have been beaten, sexually assaulted, or even murdered."

The lawsuit, filed Monday by attorney Kathleen Zellner in the U.S. District Court for western Missouri, names 13 defendants including the city of Columbia, detectives and some supervisors in the Columbia Police Department, the former Boone County prosecutor and two of his investigators.

The lawsuit says investigators withheld evidence from the defense and prosecution and fabricated evidence. It alleges malicious prosecution, defamation, false arrest and denial of due process.

The lawsuit seeks $75 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages. Zellner declined further comment on the legal action in an email on Tuesday.

Representatives for lawyers representing the city of Columbia, its police department and insurance provider said Tuesday they had not been served with the lawsuit and had no comment. The Boone County prosecutor's office did not return a call seeking comment.

Ferguson, who had always maintained his innocence, was convicted in 2005 of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder in the death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Ferguson and Charles Erickson, who were high school juniors in 2001, were drinking at a club near the newspaper before Heitholt was killed. Erickson, who was drunk and blacked out, later told friends he had dream-like memories that he and Ferguson may have killed Heitholt.

Erickson ultimately confessed to the crime, pleaded guilty and testified against Ferguson in return for a lesser sentence. Erickson later recanted his confession and trial testimony.

A custodian who identified the teens as being at the crime scene also recanted his testimony. After his release, Ferguson told reporters he believed Erickson was innocent and should be freed.

Prosecutors had said Ferguson and Erickson were short on drinking money and turned to robbery. No physical evidence tied them to the crime, the appeals court opinion said.

(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by David Bailey and Gunna Dickson)

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