An Oregon man who sat behind bars for nearly a decade for the slaying of his high school girlfriend, says he just wants the ‘truth’ in his first interview since a judge ordered his release from prison.
Nicholas McGuffin, now 37, was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of 15-year-old Leah Freeman, who was killed in 2000 when he was 18.
He was found guilty of manslaughter and jailed in 2011 – but released last year after a judge ruled undisclosed evidence was found at the scene of another man’s DNA, which could have lead to a different verdict.
McGuffin has maintained his innocence for nearly 20 years and hopes that someone will come forward with new details surrounding Freeman’s death.
‘I want people to come forward with the truth. I just want the truth. I want to know what happened,’ he said in his first interview with ABC 20/20, airing Friday.
‘[We] have a chance right now to clean the slate to make it right. I mean, I’m pretty sure a lot of people would want that. I know Leah would. I know her family wants that. I want the truth for them. What more can I ask for?’
Nicholas McGuffin, now 37, was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of 15-year-old Leah Freeman in 2011
McGuffin was a high school senior when he began dating the freshman student in the small town of Coquille, Oregon.
‘I asked Leah if she’d go to the prom with me,’ he said. ‘She had a gorgeous white dress, she had her hair done perfectly… I’m glad we went and got the pictures that we did together.’
On June 28, 2000, McGuffin dropped Freeman off at her friend Cheri Mitchell’s house and planned to swing by later for a double date.
Mitchell and Freeman are said to have gotten into an argument over how much time the teen was spending with her boyfriend, which prompted the 15-year-old to leave the home on foot.
McGuffin was a high school senior when he began dating the freshman student in the small town of Coquille, Oregon
Freeman was found strangled and dumped over a steep embankment a month after she went missing. The case went cold for nearly 10 years due to a lack of evidence
McGuffin came to pick Freeman up at 9pm but learned that she had left, and spent hours driving around looking for her.
‘I went back to Fast Mart probably five or six times,’ he said. ‘There was different people there every time… They didn’t see Leah. I didn’t see Leah.’
McGuffin says that he was stopped by police on two occasion that night as he had broken headlights. Afterwards, he and a friend – Kristen Steinhoff – drove around and went searching for Freeman.
‘I dropped Kristen off. … I think it was around 2:00 [in the morning], probably. I decided to go by Leah’s house one more time,’ McGuffin explained. ‘I saw a glare on her window, thought it was her TV. … It was 2000. It’s not like she could send me a text. She couldn’t call me on a cellphone. So I thought she was home, and I went home after that.’
When looking for her, McGuffin shared he stopped at a local Fast Mart (pictured) ‘five or six times’
McGuffin says that he was stopped by police on two occasion that night as he had broken headlights. Afterwards, he and a friend – Kristen Steinhoff – drove around and went searching for Freeman (her and McGuffin pictured)
McGuffin and Freeman’s mother – Cory Courtright – went to police and reported her missing. The same night she was reported missing, a mechanic found one of her gym shoes by a cemetery. A week later, the other shoe was found outside of town – with blood on it.
Freeman was found strangled and dumped over a steep embankment a month after she went missing. The case went cold for nearly 10 years due to a lack of evidence.
‘It was like my world was over,’ McGuffin said of when he learned the news.
‘I broke down. That’s the saddest moment that I’ve ever gone through.’
McGuffin claimed to have been extremely cooperative with authorities, even going in on his own free will to be interviewed by police.
‘[I] tried to give them any information that I knew that may be helpful,’ he said.
But as the case went cold, McGuffin said public perception of him made it ‘hard to go out in public.’
‘You’re basically looking over your shoulder to try to figure out who’s gonna come around the corner, who’s gonna start yelling at you,’ he said.
McGuffin was hospitalized soon after for anxiety. He also tried to commit suicide at one point.
‘It was just a buildup… It’s like when a tea kettle boils and it starts to make that hum, that’s what it was like, you just get an overload,’ he added.
McGuffin tried to move on with his life, going to culinary school and starting a career as a chef. He got married and had a daughter in 2007.
Police interviewed Steinhoff (pictured), learning that she and McGuffin had done drugs at her home. She told police that he tried to have sex with her, something McGuffin denies
‘I was very excited that I was gonna be a father,’ he said. ‘My daughter helped me through a lot.’
The case was reopened in 2008 after the town got a new police chief. Investigators struggled going through all the evidence as some had made its way to London. Hundreds of witness testimony was also gone through, including McGuffin’s
‘When they reopened the investigation…I just figured the truth will come out and the real person or persons would be found. And so, yeah. I mean, I didn’t see any of this coming,’ McGuffin stated.
Police interviewed Steinhoff during this time, learning that she and McGuffin had done drugs at her home. She told police that he tried to have sex with her, something McGuffin denies.
McGuffin was arrested in 2010. Investigators rooted their case in the fact that he was the victim’s boyfriend, relying heavily on witnesses who knew Freeman and claimed they saw her and the man after he told police he dropped her off
He does admit to kissing her and doing drugs, however.
‘The things Kristen and I did that night, when we were kissing, was wrong. I accept that,’ McGuffin told ’20/20.’ ‘It doesn’t mean just because I did that…that I didn’t care about [Leah]. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.’
McGuffin was arrested in 2010. Investigators rooted their case in the fact that he was the victim’s boyfriend, relying heavily on witnesses who knew Freeman and claimed they saw her and the man after he told police he dropped her off.
He was acquitted of murder the following year after the jury failed to come to a unanimous decision, but was found guilty of manslaughter with a non-unanimous 10-2 verdict.
Steinhoff died five years after McGuffin’s conviction.
McGuffin was released from prison in 2019 after Judge Patricia Sullivan determined that previously undisclosed evidence of another man’s DNA at the scene could have led to a different verdict.
In building the case for the defense, Janis Puracal uncovered new evidence – male DNA found on a pair of Freeman’s bloody shoes at the crime scene that did not match the defendant or any of the investigators. She took on his case in 2014.
‘Finding that exculpatory DNA on the shoes, that was a huge moment for our case,’ Puracal said. ‘That was a game-changer for us. We were looking for DNA that would tell us who actually committed this crime. And here, there was DNA of some other man on the victim’s bloodstained shoe … and never reported. That changed everything for us.’
The DNA had not been presented to the jury at the initial trial because the sample was so small that the state crime lab did not report it.
‘At the time, we used interpretation guidelines that didn’t necessarily discern or distinguish really low levels of DNA,’ Chrystal Bell, Forensic Services Division director for the Oregon State Police. ‘As a result of that, the analysts at the time chose to be very conservative and chose not to actually call out that potential male DNA because she couldn’t decide what it was. So she made no conclusions or statements about that DNA because it was at a very, very low level.’
However, Malheur County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Sullivan determined that had the evidence been disclosed at the initial trial, it could have changed the entire outcome, and ultimately ruled that McGuffin’s conviction should be overturned on November 29.
‘However, without the DNA evidence, Trial Counsel was reduced to showing that (Nick McGuffin) could not have committed the crime and was not able to produce any evidence of an alternative theory,’ wrote Judge Sullivan.
The DNA evidence is too small to find a match, however.
‘[The sample] is not suitable to put into the FBI’s database for forensic samples and convicted offenders,’ Bell added, ‘The quality of the DNA was not good enough in 2000, it was not good enough in 2010, and it is still not good enough.’
Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier decided not to seek a retrial for McGuffin because the teen’s mother expressed wishes for it not to continue.
Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier decided not to seek a retrial for McGuffin because the teen’s mother expressed wishes for it not to continue
‘She just flat told me, ‘I cannot take the strain of another trial. I can’t do it,’ and she asked me not to try the case again,’ Frasier said. ‘That was probably the biggest factor.’
Mark Dannels, the city’s police chief, added: ‘Nick’s already served, 97 percent of his sentence. So we go back, put this all back together, retry it. You put the family back through this again. For what? To say we were right?’
MCGUFFIN MURDER CASE: TIMELINE
June 2000: Leah Freeman, 15, is reported missing in Coquille, Oregon
July 2000: Freeman’s body is found strangled and dumped in a ditch
August 2010: Nicholas McGuffin, Freeman’s boyfriend at the time of her murder, is arrested
July 2011: Jury finds McGuffin guilty of manslaughter and he is sentenced to 10 years in prison
2015-2016: Layers with the Forensic Justice Department take on McGuffin’s case and uncover previously-undisclosed DNA evidence
August 2019: McGuffin is granted a post-conviction trial
November 2019: Judge finds that the DNA evidence could have changed the outcome of McGuffin’s original trial if it had been disclosed to the jury
Judge Sullivan did assert, however, that the overturn did not demonstrate innocence for McGuffin.
‘There have been cases in the United States where the evidence clearly shows, beyond any doubt, that the person in jail or prison didn’t do it, and that person needs to get out. That’s an exoneration, in my book,’ Frasier said. ‘What happened here was [McGuffin] was ordered to [get] a new trial. I made the decision not to go forward for a new trial. I still stand behind the investigation of this case… There’s evidence in this record to find this defendant guilty. But we have decided, for a variety of reasons, not to go forward at this time. It’s not that I believe he’s not guilty or innocent, it’s I believe it is not appropriate to proceed.’
McGuffin’s lawyer expressed disappointment that ‘continue to say that Nick is guilty in this case.’
‘The Department of Justice could have appealed the post-conviction court’s ruling and they chose not to,’ Puracal said. ‘It’s important to recognize where the DNA was found. The DNA was found inside Leah’s shoe as well as outside Leah’s shoe. And it’s found in and around bloodstains on her left shoe. That’s important to know.’
She and McGuffin have called for accountability from the state.
‘[The] D.A., law enforcement, a crime lab…should have some accountability for what they did,’ McGuffin added. ‘All I’m asking is for accountability and for them to do their jobs properly.’
McGuffin was released from prison in 2019 after Judge Patricia Sullivan determined that previously undisclosed evidence of another man’s DNA at the scene could have led to a different verdict
Judge Sullivan did assert, however, that the overturn did not demonstrate innocence for McGuffin in the killing of Freeman (pictured)
‘There are not enough markers to put it into the database to see if we can identify somebody that way,’ Frasier explained. ‘If we have a suspect, we can get a DNA sample from them send it in and have them compare it. And that’s what we did with the other potential suspects in the case. And they all came back as not being the donor of that DNA.’
McGuffin struggles to get back to his life, finding it difficult to find a new job. He is currently working on building a relationship with his daughter, who is now 12.
‘I look at her with the strength that she has at her age, I think that helps me,’ McGuffin added.
‘It’s not an easy feat. The stigma, even now, trying to get a job. … I want to work. I’m passionate about my career,’ McGuffin. ‘I remain an innocent man. That’s not going to change.’
He often thinks of Freeman and where her life would be now.
‘She should be, what, 35 now? … She would have had a family,’ he said.
Watch the full story on ’20/20′ Friday, Feb. 28, at 9pm ET on ABC.