The two men who were wrongfully convicted for a 1994 kidnapping and homicide in Montana City have each received $6 million in settlements.
Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Jenkins reached their settlements after filing separate lawsuits, MTN News reported. They each had spent more than 23 years in prison.
Lawrence signed his settlement in September and his lawsuit in federal court was dismissed in October. Jenkins’ settlement was signed November 2019, and his lawsuit was dismissed soon afterward, MTN reported. Insurance companies for the Montana Association of Counties agreed to pay the claims.
They each filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in 2019, saying law enforcement officials in three counties fabricated and hid evidence in order to secure those convictions. They claimed there were violations of their rights to due process, fair trial, reckless investigation, malicious prosecution, and a host of others.
Donna Meagher was kidnapped in early 1994 from the Jackson Creek Saloon, a family-owned casino in Montana City, and killed west of Helena, leading to the convictions of Jenkins and Lawrence in 1995.
The Montana Innocence Project filed a motion in 2015 for DNA testing of physical evidence from the crime scene. DNA evidence on a rope found at the crime scene matched David Wayne Nelson, who is serving life in prison for killing Beverly Giannonatti, 79, and her son, Greg Giannonatti, 57, in Deer Lodge in October 2015.
The Montana Innocence Project filed a motion to vacate the convictions in January 2018, which was granted by Helena District Judge Kathy Seeley in April 2018.
Jenkins and Lawrence alleged in their lawsuits that law enforcement — seven months later with no leads and feeling pressure from Meagher's family, the media and an upcoming election cycle — seized on an account from Lawrence's father-in-law, Dan Knipschield, "a known liar who had provided police with false leads in the past."
Knipschield told police in August 1994 that Lawrence had confessed that he and Jenkins killed Meagher. Knipschield's information, however, didn't match with medical reports as he told authorities the murder weapon was a knife, for example, the complaint stated.
The lawsuits alleged law enforcement ignored leads such as the descriptions of cars that matched Nelson's, and failed to follow up on leads that could have led them to Nelson.
Jenkins’ lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice on Dec. 9, 2019, by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen. His suit included his children, Kenneth Jenkins and Crystal Combs.
In a Sept. 20 filing in U.S. District Court, James G. Hunt, the attorney for Lawrence, said the Montana Association of Counties was expected to approve the funds for the settlement at its meeting later that month.
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy on Oct. 9 ordered the Lawrence case dismissed with prejudice and that each party was to pay its own cost.
“I am happy that Jenkins and Lawrence and their family members hopefully finally had some closure,” said Amy Sings in the Timber, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project. “I don’t think any amount of money can make them whole in some respects.”
She said the Montana Innocence Project worked hard on their case and “we have best hopes of them being rebuilt and having full lives.”
Sings in the Timber said she was not surprised by the amount of the settlement, adding they are in line with other states and what Montana has paid in the past.
The state Legislature is considering House Bill 92, which would deal with compensation of the wrongfully convicted. That bill has been tabled in the House Appropriations Committee.
Sings in the Timber said she was hopeful the bill would become law.
Seaborn Larson of the Montana State News Bureau contributed to this story.
Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.