PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Nicholas McGuffin, who has been in prison for nearly a decade for a crime he has always maintained he didn’t commit, may soon walk free after his post-conviction legal team found “exculpatory DNA evidence that was never disclosed to the jury.”
In June 2000, Leah Freeman disappeared while walking in Coquille, a small city south of Coos Bay. About a month later, the 15-year-old’s body was found about 8 miles away down an embankment. Physical evidence was limited and there were no witnesses, so the case went cold.
Ten years later police arrested McGuffin, who had been Leah’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance. He was convicted of manslaughter in 2011.
According to McGuffin’s legal team, the Oregon State Police Forensics Services Division “found DNA belonging to an unidentified male on the victim’s bloodstained shoe” before the criminal trial began, but did not report the find to anyone outside the lab.
Read the court ruling at the bottom of this article
McGuffin’s lawyers said despite the discovery, a lab analyst “falsely testified that there was no DNA evidence pointing to any other suspect.”
McGuffin’s attorneys found out about the DNA evidence and confronted the lab in 2017, arguing that if the DNA evidence had been available at his original trial, the jury would not have convicted McGuffin.
Malheur County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Sullivan agreed, overturning the conviction Friday. McGuffin’s lawyers said it’s “not known how many other defendants have been wrongfully convicted in Oregon in cases in which OSP Lab analysts chose not to report exculpatory DNA results.”
‘DNA belonged to some other guy’
Janis Puracal, an attorney and the Executive Director for the Forensic Justice Project, told KOIN 6 News McGuffin has maintained his innocence all along.
“He was acquitted on the murder charge and then the jury came back with a 10-2 verdict on manslaughter,” Puracal said. “Oregon is one of the only states in the country that allows a non-unamious verdict and you can still get convicted.”
When McGuffin was on trial in 2011, “there was the misimpression that there was no DNA evidence in the case,” Puracal said. “The report from the state lab suggested that the only DNA was that of the victim herself and a deputy who found her shoes miles and miles from her body.”
But Judge Patricia Sullivan “has recognized in post-conviction that there was actually exculpatory DNA belonging to some other guy, not Mr. McGuffin.”
Puracal said they argued the state lab should have disclosed the exculpatory DNA evidence. “That evidence should have been considered to show Mr. McGuffin is actually innocent.”
Late Friday, Judge Sullivan ruled the Oregon State Lab should have disclosed the exculpatory DNA evidence. “They violated Mr. McGuffin’s constitutional rights by not disclosing it.”
Having that DNA evidence could have completely changed the case, she told KOIN 6 News. The jury “could have used this DNA evidence to find Mr. McGuffin innocent and acquit him.”
At the time of Freeman’s death, there was an internal policy at the Oregon State Lab that gave their analysts discretion to not report low level DNA samples, she said. But “that should have been reported whether it was low level or not,” she said.
The DNA has since been re-tested by the state lab “and confirmed that there is exculpatory male DNA on that shoe.”
And, she said, “they’re able to tell it’s not Mr. McGuffin’s,” nor was it the law enforcement officer who picked up the shoe. There wasn’t enough to run the DNA through the national data base, but investigators could continue to compare this DNA to any other suspect to see if they get a match.”
What happens next
Kristina Edmundson, the Communications Director for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, told KOIN 6 News they have not made a decision whether to appeal Judge Sullivan’s ruling.
If the state chooses not to appeal, Purcal said the district attorney then has to decide whether to dismiss the charges and release him or if he’ll re-try the case. If the state does appeal, they have to do so by the end of December.
Nick McGuffin is happy and relieved, she said. “He’s been fighting for this for a really long time, so it’s great when you get a court to recognize what the evidence really shows, and that is was important and a jury should have seen it,” Purcal said.
He’s been behind bars for 9 years. “He wants to go home. He’s got a young daughter and he wants to be with his family.”
So, who killed Leah Freeman? That is still a mystery.
“We have no idea. I wish that we knew the answer to that,” Purcal said. “Right now we know there’s DNA evidence there but we don’t know who it belongs to.”
They want the investigation to continue “and one day actually be able to tell us what happened to Leah.”