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Matt said that they try to evaluate a site based on what it is now rather than what it might have been in the past.
The interesting word there is 'try'.
Having seen first hand the damage that Panda and Penguin cause...
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.
I did see spammy keyword practices such as having two dozen nearly identical articles with only slightly different titles.
John Mueller has stated that a domain's backlink history follows it.
I couldn't care less about previous history beyond not wanting it to hold the potential of the new site down.
I'll try to come back in a few months to let you know the results.