COQUILLE — As of Tuesday, no trial date had been set yet for the civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court over the handling of Leah Freeman’s murder investigation.
The lawsuit was filed by Nicholas McGuffin, who was wrongfully convicted and spent nine years in prison over her death before being exonerated last year.
“Federal court typically works hard to keep us on track and moving in that direction … We should expect that,” said Janis Puracal, one of McGuffin’s attorneys at Maloney Lauersdorf Reiner, PC. and also the attorney who investigated his case with the Forensic Justice Project, leading to his exoneration.
Puracal answered questions from The World about the case, saying, “We want to be able to get this case in front of a jury as soon as possible.”
Of course, in the era of the new coronavirus, not everything may go as planned.
“… (I)t’s difficult to predict how long it takes to get to trial,” she said. “In the time of the pandemic, it’s nearly impossible to predict because of the complicated factors.”
Since Freeman disappeared almost 20 years ago, Puracal said McGuffin has wanted to find out what happened to her.
“… He was exonerated in December and still had prosecutors in the news saying he was guilty,” Puracal said. “That steps down the effort to figure out what happened to (Freeman). They put him in a position to have no choice but to file a lawsuit in order to push the case forward.”
The federal civil rights lawsuit is against numerous police and other officials in Coos County. The suit focuses on how Freeman’s case was investigated.
Even though no trial date has been set yet, Puracal said the usual measures taken before a case goes to trial can be done remotely, including discovery and deposition.
Puracal said that since McGuffin was released from prison just before Christmas last year, he “has been able to reconnect with his daughter, which has been a beautiful thing to see.”
“I think he thought it would be easier getting out (of prison) than it is, so it’s been a struggle,” Puracal added. “He really wanted to stay in Coquille. That’s where he grew up and where his parents are. (He) wanted to make up for the lost time with them, but he couldn’t find a job. No one would hire him there because of the stigma that surrounded him.”
Because of this, she said he found work in Portland.
“That’s been difficult for him because he’s a family man and being away from family was difficult and now that he’s out, he’s still having to be away from his family,” she said.
According to a Monday press release from McGuffin’s legal team 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.
The lawsuit states that McGuffin seeks “economic and non-economic damages,” “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.”