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Nicholas McGuffin

Other Oregon exonerations
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On the evening of June 28, 2000, 18-year-old Nicholas McGuffin dropped his 15-year-old girlfriend, Leah Freeman, at a friend’s house in Coquille, Oregon. When he returned to pick her up around 9 p.m., the friend, Cherie Mitchell, said she and Leah had quarreled and Leah walked out of the house sometime before 9 p.m.

Freeman did not come home that night and police considered her a runaway. Freeman’s right shoe was found at about 11:30 p.m. on a street near a cemetery across the street from Coquille High School. The person who found it didn’t report the discovery to police until July 4—six days after Freeman was last seen.

One day later, on July 5, Freeman’s blood-spattered left shoe was found 10 miles away on a remote dirt road.

On August 3, 2000, Freeman’s badly decomposed body was found at the bottom of a 15-foot embankment along a road about eight miles outside of Coquille and three miles from where the left shoe was found.

The manner of death was classified as homicidal violence of undetermined type. The medical examiner could not determine the cause of death.

The case went unsolved for a decade. It was re-opened in 2008 and the Coos County District Attorney’s Office convened a grand jury in 2010. Following the testimony of scores of witnesses, McGuffin was indicted for first-degree murder. He was arrested on August 24, 2010.

In July 2011, McGuffin went to trial in Coos County Circuit Court. A number of witnesses testified they saw McGuffin driving around looking for Freeman on the night she disappeared. Other witnesses testified they saw Freeman walking alone.

However, one witness, John Lindegren, testified that he saw McGuffin with Freeman at about 9 p.m.—two hours after McGuffin had said he dropped Freeman off at her girlfriend’s house.

Kathy Wilcox, a DNA analyst from the Oregon State Police crime lab, testified that Freeman’s shoes had been examined and tested. She testified that Freeman’s DNA was found on both shoes, and that the DNA of a police officer was also found on the left shoe.

There was no physical evidence linking McGuffin to the crime. On July 9, 2011, the jury, by a vote of 10 to 2, convicted McGuffin of first-degree manslaughter, a lesser-included offense. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

His appeals were denied and in 2014, McGuffin sought help from the Oregon Innocence Project. His attorney there, Janis Puracal, filed a petition for post-conviction relief. Puracal subsequently left the project and formed the Forensic Justice Project. She continued investigating the case, along with John Comery, a research paralegal from the Oregon Innocence Project and attorney Ryan O’Connor from the law firm of O’Connor Weber.

A hearing on the post-conviction petition was held in August 2019. Judge Patricia Sullivan granted McGuffin a new trial in November 2019.

In an 18-page decision, Judge Sullivan concluded that the crime lab testimony regarding the DNA testing was false. The judge agreed with an expert retained by Puracal that the crime lab had failed to state in its final report of the testing that male DNA was found on Freeman’s shoes that was not McGuffin’s DNA. Likewise, she found that Wilcox had failed to state that in her testimony at trial.

While the discovery of the unidentified DNA was mentioned in the laboratory bench notes, it was not mentioned in the final lab report or in testimony, the judge said. Wilcox’s testimony that only Freeman’s DNA was found on the right shoe and only Freeman’s DNA and the police officer’s DNA were found on the left shoe “were incorrect.”

“Review of the results [shows] that unknown male DNA was found on both shoes, not belonging to [McGuffin], and those results were known in 2001 and 2002 when the reports were generated,” the judge said.

The judge also noted that there was a dispute about whether crime lab protocols in place in 2000 required the small amounts of unidentified DNA to be reported. However, the judge noted that the trial did not occur until 2011. “[B]y 2011,” the judge stated, “there is no dispute the results would have been reported at that time, or, that had a defense expert asked, the results would have been disclosed.”

The judge ruled that McGuffin’s trial defense lawyer provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to retain a DNA expert to examine not only the crime lab report, but also the bench notes, which had been disclosed to the defense prior to trial. Hiring an expert would have allowed the defense to suggest another unknown male committed the crime and would have foreclosed the prosecution from arguing that there was no unknown DNA on the shoes.

Judge Sullivan also noted that during the post-conviction proceedings, the prosecution “took the unusual step” of hiring an independent expert, Thomas Fedor, to review the DNA results. The judge said that Fedor had concluded that the crime lab “made errors and that the reliance on protocols or analyst discretion in 2001 is suspect.”

The judge also ruled that the prosecution had, in effect, failed to disclose that unidentified male DNA was found on Freeman’s shoes. “The basis for this conclusion,” the judge said, was that “the actual forensic analysis (the ‘bench notes’) was…not interpreted in the report.” The judge said that the report and Wilcox’s testimony “created a false impression that no other DNA was found on the shoes. This failure is a failure to disclose exculpatory evidence.”

The judge also faulted McGuffin’s trial defense lawyers for failing to investigate a police report of an interview with Nick Backman. Backman told police that he saw Freeman by herself about 9 p.m. near an ATM—about the same time that Lindegren claimed he saw McGuffin with Freeman in the area of the ATM.

Police had obtained a teller receipt supporting Backman’s claim that he made a $10 withdrawal at the time he saw Freeman walking alone. Not only did Backman’s account directly contradict Lindegren, but, the judge said, it also made it “more likely” that Lindegren had confused Freeman’s friend and her boyfriend for Freeman and McGuffin. Backman’s account could have been used to impeach Lindegren and support McGuffin’s claim that he didn’t see Freeman again that night after he dropped her off.

Puracal contended that the prosecution had failed to disclose the Backman report to McGuffin’s trial defense attorneys, noting that it was not in the defense trial file and it was not listed in a “discovery log,” a list of what the prosecution disclosed to the defense. During a deposition prior to the post-conviction hearing, the trial prosecutor noted that the Backman report had a “Bates stamp,” which is part of a numbering system used to track and identify documents, and had binder holes punched in it. That, the prosecutor said, indicated it had been disclosed to the defense. However, Puracal noted that the defense file had a document that was not the Backman report, but that had been assigned the same Bates number.

Nonetheless, Judge Sullivan declined to rule that the prosecution had failed to disclose the report. The judge said there was insufficient evidence that the report was not disclosed. “It is also possible, given the volume of [documents] in the case, that [defense] counsel missed it and if that is the case, this error was critical,” Judge Sullivan said.

On December 17, 2019, Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier dismissed the case.

“After having consulted with members of the original investigating team and the family of Ms. Freeman, I have decided not to pursue a new trial in this case,” Frasier said. “As I have decided to not seek a new a trial, I am required to dismiss the case against Mr. McGuffin.”

Just a few hours later, McGuffin was released from prison.

In July 2020, McGuffin filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against local and state police, alleging they hid and manufactured evidence against him.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/20/2020
Last Updated: 7/21/2020
State:Oregon
County:Coos
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2000
Convicted:2011
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:10 years
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*