DNA evidence withheld, manslaughter conviction overturned
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon State Police failed to reveal DNA evidence that could have exonerated a man who has spent nine years in prison for the killing of his girlfriend, a judge ruled in overturning the conviction.
Nicholas McGuffin has consistently maintained his innocence in the death of Leah Freeman, who was 15 when she disappeared from her hometown of Coquille, Oregon, in 2000. Her body was found in the woods five weeks later.
McGuffin was convicted by a 10-2 jury verdict of manslaughter in 2011, even though there were no witnesses and no evidence tying McGuffin to the crime.
“Mr. McGuffin’s case proves the importance of understanding forensic evidence and the need to get it right,” said Janis Puracal, lead attorney in McGuffin’s post-conviction team. She said McGuffin has spent nine years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Kathy Wilcox of the Oregon State Police Crime Lab had testified in 2011 that the only DNA evidence found on Freeman’s blood-spattered Nike sneakers belonged to the victim and to a sheriff’s deputy who had handled the evidence.
The crime lab knew, but did not report to either the prosecution or the defense, that a trace amount of unknown male DNA was also on the sneakers, Malheur County Circuit Judge Patricia Sullivan said in her ruling late Friday.
If the jury had known that fact, it could have concluded another unknown male had killed Freeman, Sullivan said.
The state police did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sullivan said McGuffin’s attorney in the original trial, held in coastal Coos County, should have called an expert defense witness on the DNA evidence.
McGuffin was charged with murder, and he was found guilty of manslaughter by the jury. Oregon allows split-jury verdicts except for first-degree murder convictions, which require unanimous verdicts.
Puracal, who is executive director of the Forensic Justice Project, said other innocent people may have been convicted under similar circumstances.
“It is 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,” she said.
The state of Oregon has until Dec. 30 to decide if it wants to appeal the decision, Puracal said. If it does not appeal, charges could be dismissed and McGuffin released, or a new trial ordered.
“Nick is not free yet,” Puracal said.
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