Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Kenneth Jenkins were convicted in the 1994 murder of Montana City barkeeper Donna Meagher on circumstantial evidence, but new DNA testing has made a connection to a convicted killer David Wayne Nelson.
Now their case is coming to back to Helena’s courts to see if they will be released after years of incarceration in the Montana State Prison.
According to court documents filed by the Montana Innocence Project, DNA testing of items found at the scene of the homicide did not match with either Lawrence or Jenkins. But it did connect with Nelson, along with his modus operandi of killing with a claw hammer.
Toby Cook, a staff attorney for the Montana Innocence Project, said the Project had been looking at the Lawrence and Jenkins case since 2010 or 2011.
“It was actually the first one I started working on in 2013,” Cook said.
Cook said he believed this was the first Montana case in which the Innocence Project used DNA testing to argue that the convicted were falsely imprisoned.
The Innocence Project utilized a Boise State DNA expert to test the materials from the scene of the crime. The expert found that a DNA match between the tested material and Lawrence’s DNA is 10,000,000,000 times less likely than a coincidental match to an unrelated person, according to court documents. The expert also found that Lawrence’s DNA was excluded from a test as well, court documents say.
The legal standard for overturning a conviction involves reasonable probability that the outcome of a trial could have been different if a new piece of evidence had been introduced. In this case, two unknown male profiles on pieces of rope left at the crime scene were linked to Nelson, a handyman convicted of the deliberate homicide of two people in Powell County, one of whom he killed with a hammer in 2015.
Other evidence connecting Nelson to Meagher's murder surfaced as well. Nelson had allegedly bragged to someone that he had killed Donna Meagher, which started an investigation sometime after the murder. But Nelson is the only person to date with direct physical evidence connecting him to Meagher's murder, according to court documents.
The Montana Attorney General's Office is handling the case, as Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher was on the prosecution when the case was originally tried. The Department of Justice released a statement Friday that said “our office became involved in this case due to a petition for DNA testing to reexamine some of the evidence. Our office agreed to have the evidence reexamined, and we notified defense of the test results once we received them. We cannot comment further as there is an ongoing investigation into this matter. The court will now determine the outcome at a hearing."
Cook and the Innocence Project see the new evidence as “very compelling.” But the fate of Lawrence and Jenkins will remain unknown until the case is heard in District Court next week.