Robert_Charlton - 7:14 pm on Nov 3, 2012 (gmt 0)
Thinking out loud here...
Given that there's now a tool to disavow previous links, it should be possible to buy the domain and get rid of all prior history before putting up a new site. If you're buying the domain simply for the name, this is an approach that would make sense. Buy, disavow, start building new content, and give it some time.
If you're buying the domain because you'd also like to keep some of the existing backlinks, then you're not just buying the domain... you're also buying the history, and you're walking a fuzzy line.
In either case you would still have physically existing spammy backlinks that might not be desirable. You could check these on an historical backlink tool like Majestic. Conceivably, most of these won't bring any traffic, which in this case I assume would be a good thing.
A slight complication might be conflicts in some reputable directories that might list the domain in its old incarnation, but, from what you describe, that's not likely.
Having seen first hand the damage that Panda and Penguin cause...
If this domain becomes the basis for a completely new site, any onsite Panda effects, and any onsite Penguin effects, would be completely gone once the site is rebuilt and data is refreshed. Link disavow theoretically should take care of unwanted backlink influence.
There are other search engines, of course, that might have a different take on the situation, should they look at things like bad neighborhoods and domain history.