After police found 15-year-old Leah Freeman’s body dumped off a steep embankment near Coquille, Ore., in 2000, the case sat cold for almost a decade because of scant physical evidence and no witnesses who had seen Freeman snatched from the street. But prosecutors eventually built a case against Freeman’s boyfriend, using a story of a tumultuous teenage relationship marred by jealousy and one of the only pieces of evidence: Freeman’s blood-splattered Nike sneaker.
But now, nearly a decade after a split jury convicted Nicholas McGuffin of manslaughter, he may be set free — and that same stained shoe is at the center of his wrongful conviction case.
A judge on Friday found that the state’s crime lab violated McGuffin’s rights by concealing DNA evidence extracted from that shoe, which has reignited speculation about who really killed Freeman.
“Mr. McGuffin has maintained his innocence all along and has fought to prove that the wrong man is in prison,” his lawyer and the executive director of the Forensic Justice Project, Janis Puracal, told The Washington Post. “We believe that the DNA evidence establishes that, and now the court has recognized that the DNA evidence is exculpatory.”
The Coos County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment late Sunday.
Freeman disappeared on June 28, 2000, after McGuffin dropped her off at her best friend’s house, according to court records obtained by The Washington Post. The friend, Sherrie Mitchell, confronted Freeman over her romance with McGuffin, who was a senior at their high school and three years older than the girls. After the argument, Freeman stormed out of the house.
“I think that he was kind of dangerous and, you know, maybe she liked the danger side of him,” Mitchell told ABC News a decade later.
About 9 p.m. that night, McGuffin showed up to drive his girlfriend home, but Mitchell told him Freeman had already left. He drove around Coquille in his Mustang, searching for her. Twice, police officers pulled him over for a blown headlight. A witness told the court McGuffin later came to her house to use drugs that night, the Oregonian reported during the trial.
Although McGuffin and Freeman’s family immediately started looking for her, police treated her sudden disappearance as a runaway teen case until they found a bloodied shoe almost a week later. It took another month for officers to find Freeman’s body, which had decomposed so severely that a medical examiner could not determine how she had died.
For years, police hit a dead end, until a new police chief reopened the case and brought in outside investigators.
In 2010, the small town’s prosecutor put 100 witnesses in front of a grand jury to indict McGuffin.
Investigators leaned on that deluge of witnesses, because police never found DNA, bloodstains or eyewitnesses to tie McGuffin to the crime. Prosecutors suggested there was no evidence of blood in McGuffin’s car because he had thoroughly cleaned the vehicle before officers searched it. And they pointed to a DNA test that they said showed that, although McGuffin’s DNA wasn’t on Freeman’s shoes or body, there was no evidence of any other DNA and, therefore, no alternative suspect.
McGuffin’s defense attorney argued that another man had abducted and killed Freeman, discredited witnesses who may have been motivated to provide damning testimony by a cash reward, and pointed out that the state had failed to tie any physical evidence to McGuffin.
Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier called it “the toughest case I’ve ever dealt with,” the Oregonian reported during the trial in 2011. But by the time police arrested McGuffin on Aug. 24, 2010, they were so confident they had the right man that law enforcement officials invited a TV crew from ABC News’s “20/20” to film the arrest and trial.
In court, Frasier argued that McGuffin believed Freeman was going to dump him, and strangled her in a fit of jealous rage that turned violent. He charged McGuffin with murder but later added manslaughter to the charges.
“I did that because … I really do not believe Nick McGuffin woke up one morning and said, ‘I have to go out kill Leah Freeman,’ ” he said in 2011, the Oregonian reported. “An unfortunate set of circumstances came together and Leah ended up dead.”
The decision to include a manslaughter charge also increased the likelihood of a conviction in Oregon, where all 12 jurors must agree to convict on a murder charge, but only 10 need to agree to convict on other felonies.
On July 19, 2011, a decade after Freeman was killed, 10 jurors voted to convict McGuffin of manslaughter instead of murder. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and sent to a labor camp in the Tillamook State Forest, about 50 miles west of Portland, Ore.
Four years after his conviction, a new lawyer with the Forensic Justice Project, which investigates wrongful convictions based on faulty forensic evidence, took a look at McGuffin’s case. Soon, they found troubling evidence that was never turned over to McGuffin’s criminal defense attorneys.
Puracal, executive director of the Forensic Justice Project, told The Post that DNA analysis from Freeman’s sneaker did find an unknown man’s genes in the dried blood. The DNA on the shoe didn’t match McGuffin or any of the law enforcement officers who handled the evidence — suggesting that someone else may have killed her.
The analyst at the Oregon Crime Lab who had tested DNA from the shoes knew about the unidentified man’s DNA but failed to tell police, prosecutors, McGuffin’s defense team, or the jury.
Armed with the new evidence, Puracal and her team filed an appeal on McGuffin’s behalf and went to trial in August.
In court, the crime lab said that in 2001, it had a policy allowing its analysts to withhold evidence of trace amounts of DNA and argued that the omission did not violate its rules at the time. That claim didn’t impress the judge.
“This case went to trial in 2011,” Malheur County Circuit Court judge Patricia Sullivan wrote in her Friday ruling overturning the conviction. “Significant advances in the detection of trace amounts of DNA occurred in that ten-year period, and by 2011, 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.”
Sullivan found other mistakes, as well, like missing notes from a potentially exculpatory interview, and ruled that, especially in the case of the hidden DNA results, “there is more than a mere possibility” that the jury may have come to a different verdict if it had considered all of the information available in the case.
Puracal said other cases have been tainted when labs encourage analysts to emphasize evidence that helps prosecutors and play down evidence that might undermine a case.
“If you have lab folks who are part of the police, their task is to find evidence” to support the prosecution’s case, Puracal said. “I’m firmly convinced we will never know how many cases in Oregon fall under that same policy,” she said.
Sullivan’s decision now sends McGuffin’s case back to prosecutors, who now have to decide whether to appeal, retry the case with the DNA evidence or dismiss the charges against McGuffin.
McGuffin is set to be released as early as Aug. 22, 2020, if the court does not clear his name first.