COQUILLE — A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed Monday morning against numerous police and other officials in Coos County.
The case surrounds the wrongful conviction of Nicholas McGuffin, who spent nine years in prison for the death of Leah Freeman.
According to a press release from his legal team at Maloney Lauersdorf Reiner, PC., the lawsuit alleges that local agencies manufactured “false evidence and (hid) other evidence that would have cleared him.”
The lawsuit is filed against the City of Coquille, the City of Coos Bay, Coos County, Oregon State Police, as well as Sheriff Craig Zanni. The lawsuit is also filed against individuals from those departments, including Mark Dannels, Pat Downing, Susan Hormann, Mary Krings, Kris Karcher, Shelly McInnes, Raymond McNeely, Kip Oswald, Michael Reaves, John Riddle, Sean Sanborn, Eric Schwenninger, Richard Walter, Chris Webley, Anthony Wetmore, Kathy Wilcox, David Zavala, the estate of Dave Hall, and the Vidocq Society.
“Nicholas McGuffin had at least 20 alibi witnesses for the time when his girlfriend, Leah Freeman, was abducted and murdered on June 28, 2000,” the release said. “A decade later, he was wrongly convicted of manslaughter by a non-unanimous jury and spent nine years in prison after police fabricated evidence against him, coerced witnesses, and withheld DNA and other evidence that would have cleared him.”
“Leah’s abduction and murder was the ‘crime of the century’ for the small town of Coquille,” said Janis C. Puracal, one of McGuffin’s attorneys, in the release. “The police were under enormous pressure to solve the case, and they cracked under that pressure. They created false evidence and sent an innocent man to prison for nine years.”
The release states that after Freeman disappeared, and her body was later found, a “deeply flawed” cold case investigation was launched but “focused almost exclusively on McGuffin.”
The lawsuit alleges that investigators on Freeman’s case “knew that the Original Investigating Officers crafted a false narrative of McGuffin’s guilt based on junk science, including a ‘statement analysis,’ fabricated polygraph results, and other fabricated evidence….”
The lawsuit goes on to allege that investigators “…also deliberately suppressed, tampered with, and/or destroyed relevant and material impeachment evidence that undermined the credibility of key prosecution witnesses, including evidence of their own misconduct and violations of McGuffin’s rights….”
“The police appeared on national television to gin up rumors and publicize the false evidence before McGuffin’s criminal trial, and the prosecutor presented the same fabricated evidence to the jury at that trial,” the release said. “A decade later, after McGuffin was exonerated by DNA evidence, that same national news program, ABC News ‘20/20,’ came back to Oregon to help correct the record and expose the police misconduct.”
“This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Leah’s abduction and murder, and we are still trying to find out what really happened to Leah,” Puracal said in the release. “The police wasted the last 20 years and destroyed McGuffin’s life in the process.”
Puracal, with the Forensic Justice Project, looked into McGuffin’s case and uncovered evidence that led to his exoneration in November last year. Her findings were evaluated by the Malheur County Circuit Court, which ruled that “the Oregon State Police lab violated McGuffin’s constitutional rights by failing to report DNA evidence that would have cleared him of the crime,” the release read.
When the State of Oregon chose not to appeal the ruling and the Coos County District Attorney’s Office dropped charges against him, the Coos County Circuit Court dismissed the case against him. McGuffin walked “out of prison a free and innocent man….”
While incarcerated, the release pointed out that McGuffin missed most of his daughter’s childhood and that his career as an executive banquet chef “was destroyed by years of harassment preceding his wrongful imprisonment and the nine years behind bars that followed.
“He is still trying to put the pieces of his life back together.”
“Even after Nick was exonerated, and his presumption of innocence fully restored, the people responsible for his wrongful conviction are out in public and in the press calling him ‘guilty’,” said Andrew C, Lauersdorf in the release, one of McGuffin’s lawyers. “They have really left Nick no choice but to file this lawsuit to reveal the truth about what they did to him, and, hopefully, persuade them to reopen their investigation and get to the bottom of what really happened to Leah. Today we start that process.”
The lawsuit concludes that McGuffin seeks “economic and non-economic damages,” as well as “an award of punitive damages,” as well as the cost of his attorney fees and “such other relief as the Court finds just and equitable.”