THE BASIC SITUATION: In 2000, a young woman was killed in Coquille,
Oregon. The case become "cold," and public pressure grew to solve
it. In 2008, Mark Dannels was hired as Coquille police chief, in
part to clear up this "cold case." In 2011, Nicholas McGuffin was
convicted, in state court, of manslaughter. In 2019, after
McGuffin made a motion for post-conviction relief, the state court
granted the motion and vacated McGuffin's conviction; the local
district attorney decided not to re-try the case; and McGuffin filed a
complaint in federal court against many people involved in his
conviction, including Dannels, who is now Cochise County Sheriff.
The state ruling that grants McGuffin's motion for post-conviction relief is at
For an html version, see
McGuffin's federal Complaint is at
McGuffin's complaint alleges that the state court's vacation of his
conviction, combined with the D.A.'s decision not to try him again,
amounts to exoneration, and that he is obviously innocent. To
quote the Complaint:
"1. Nicholas McGuffin spent nine years in prison for
a crime that he did not commit -- the murder of Leah Freeman.
"2. McGuffin was wrongfully convicted because
Defendants fabricated and suppressed evidence and otherwise violated
McGuffin's rights under the United States constitution, the Oregon
constitution, and the law.
"3. After fighting for his innocence for nearly two
decades, McGuffin was exonerated when his conviction was vacated and
the Coos County District Attorney's Office dismissed all charges
II. In the word "exonerated" in Paragraph 3 of McGuffin's complaint,
quoted just above, there is ambiguity. It can mean that
McGuffin's guilty verdict was set aside, or it can mean that McGuffin
was found not guilty.
The state court that vacated McGuffin's criminal conviction appeared to
be using the first meaning: it did not find McGuffin "not guilty," it
found that a jury might have found him not guilty if different evidence
had been presented. Here is the relevant language (verbatim,
typos not corrected) from the order vacating McGuffin's conviction:
"FINDING OF FACT AND LEGAL CONCLUSIONS (SPECIFIC CLAIMS)
"1. Claim: Actual Innocence (Paragraph 7) is denied
based on petitioner's [that is, McGuffin's] failure to establish the
merits of the claim. The legal basis for denial of relief is failure to
establish the factual and legal merits of the claim.
"a. ... Petitioner has not shown, based on newly
discovered and reliable evidence it is more likely than not that no
reasonable juror could have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable
doubt .... He can show that had certain evidence been presented
at trial, the is a reasonable possibility that the outcome would have
been difference ...."
However, McGuffin's Complaint seems to be using the second of the
ambiguous meanings of "exonerated," that McGuffin was found not guilty
-- i.e., innocent.
In paragraphs 3, 53, 54, 58, 64, 67, 74, 84, 88, 98, 101, 106, 109,
136, 186, 189, 193, 201, 221, and 247, McGuffin's Complaint asserts
that he is innocent, or refers to his innocence, though this exceeds
what the state court found.
In paragraphs 53, 101, and 189, the Complaint says "obvious" or
"obviously" about McGuffin not being guilty. Such language is a
conclusion, not a fact.
In paragraph 201, the Complaint says that if the defendants in the
current lawsuit had "disclosed this exculpatory evidence, the evidence
would have proved McGuffin's innocence." However, that exceeds
the state court's ruling "that had certain evidence been presented at
trial, the is a reasonable possibility that the outcome would have been
difference" (see FINDING OF FACT 1.a, quoted above).
In paragraph 247, the Complaint appears to acknowledge that the state
court did not determine McGuffin to be innocent, but merely terminated
the proceedings "in McGuffin's favor in a manner indicative of his
innocence" -- a quotation which acknowledges that the state court did
not state explicitly that he was innocent.
Since all allegations in a Complaint must be proven, the federal
lawsuit apparently intends to try to prove McGuffin's actual innocence
-- although he did not succeed in that in the state court, nor did he
appeal the state court's failure to find him actually innocent.
III. The remainder of this writing deals with the Complaint's allegations against Sheriff Dannels in particular.
Here are the Complaint's paragraphs specifically dealing with Dannels.
Four paragraphs allege Dannels's relation to the case in general:
"90. Defendant City of Coquille coordinated with the
District Attorney on the selection of a new chief, and the City and the
District Attorney required the new Chief to commit to 'closing' the
Freeman case by obtaining a conviction.
"91. Defendant Dannels made such a commitment and
was hired as the new Chief of Police for Defendant City of Coquille in
"92. As the Chief of Police, Defendant Dannels
re-opened the Freeman investigation and assembled a team of police
officers to try to obtain a conviction for the Freeman murder (the
'Cold Case Investigation').
"93. Officers involved in the Cold Case
Investigation included Defendants Dannels, McNeely, Sanborn, and Webley
of the City of Coquille Police Department; Defendants Karcher and Zanni
of Coos County; Defendant Schwenninger of the City of Coos Bay Police
Department; and Defendants Hormann and Wilcox of the OSP Lab (the 'Cold
One paragraph mentions Dannels as part of a group:
"131. Beaten down and frightened, Steinhoff adopted
Defendants' misrepresentations as her own and repeated them back to
Defendants Dannels and Riddle, even though Steinhoff and the Cold Case
Investigators knew that McGuffin had never said any such thing or
otherwise threatened Steinhoff."
Only three paragraphs allege specific misconduct by Dannels:
"108. Defendant CPD Police Chief Dannels falsely
reported, and repeated on the nationally televised ABC network news
program '20/20,' while standing near the cemetery, that Freeman's shoe
was found on the road right there with blood on it."
"120. The Cold Case Investigators further falsely
reported, and Defendant Dannels repeated on the nationally televised
ABC network news program '20/20,' that several witnesses actually
placed McGuffin with Freeman after 9:00, despite knowing this statement
"179. The unlawful acts of the Original
Investigating Officers before the involvement of the Cold Case
Investigators were known to, accepted by, and built upon by the Cold
Case Investigators, including Defendant Dannels, who was the official
policymaker at the time he approved of, accepted, and ratified these
At any trial on this Complaint, the burden will be on McGuffin to prove
those specific allegations about Dannels. If McGuffin does prove
them, it will not mean that McGuffin will win his case; a lot more must
be proved to win his case. However, McGuffin's effort to prove
his allegations may be embarrassing for Dannels.