Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Kenneth Jenkins, two men serving life sentences for the killing of a Jefferson County woman in 1994, had those convictions overturned Friday morning following five years of work by the Montana Innocence Project.
Donna Meagher was working at the Jackson Creek Saloon near Montana City on Jan. 11, 1994, when she disappeared after working a night shift. More than $2,000 had been stolen from the casino and Meagher’s pickup was missing. Her body was found the next day off of Colorado Gulch Road west of Helena.
Jenkins and Lawrence were suspected of the crime after a witness reported seeing Jenkins driving by the area early in the morning of Jan. 12 and Lawrence's father-in-law implicated them, saying that Lawrence admitted killing Meagher with Jenkins.
Prosecution also relied on the testimony of Jenkins' wife, who was diagnosed with dementia, according to court documents.
Current Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher was a defense attorney in the case, while Mike McGrath, the current chief justice of Montana’s Supreme Court, led the prosecution, which convicted Jenkins and Lawrence of deliberate homicide in 1995. Jenkins and Lawrence were tried together with separate juries and the two men were convicted of robbery, kidnapping and homicide and sentenced to life in the Montana State Prison.
Recent DNA testing completed with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Justice made checks on a number of items involved at the crime scene, including a length of knotted and coiled rope with Meagher's blood on it. That piece of evidence turned up a man's DNA profile hit on the Montana offender's DNA database, a profile that turned out to be convicted murderer David Wayne Nelson.
In Montana, 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.
"There is clearly a reasonable probability that a different outcome at trial could have been reached," Judge Kathy Seeley wrote about the DNA testing. New DNA results were “clearly favorable to defendants Jenkins and Lawrence” according to Seeley in her decision Friday, saying that evidence suggests the involvement of another man in the crime, naming David Nelson.
David Nelson is currently serving a sentence for his 2016 conviction of two deliberate homicides in Powell County. His nephew, Fred Nelson, had told law enforcement on multiple occasions that his uncle had told him a story eerily similar to the facts surrounding the Donna Meagher homicide in 1994, including that two men had gone to prison instead of him.
State officials confirmed that Fred Nelson had reported his uncle's statements at least twice, but they weren't acted upon until 2016 — which Seeley noted was still before the DNA evidence linked David Nelson to the case.
Seeley concluded that the DNA evidence combined with Fred Nelson's testimony led to the conclusion that post-conviction relief was warranted.
"Moreover, the Court finds that the new evidence, including the DNA evidence and the statements and testimony of Fred Nelson, far exceeds the standard of a 'reasonable probability of a different outcome at trial.' The new evidence is generally inconsistent with the state's theory of the cases as presented at trial. The physical evidence, and the statements and testimony of Fred Nelson, support the theory that David Nelson, a known killer, was involved in the robbery, kidnapping and homicide of Donna Meagher," Seeley wrote.
Charges have not been filed connecting David Nelson to the Meagher homicide.
Seeley rejected the Montana Innocence Project's motion for the charges to be dismissed against Lawrence and Jenkins with orders that they couldn't be refiled. She instead ruled that new trials are warranted. She ordered Jenkins and Lawrence to be brought to her court for a status and bail hearing as soon as possible.
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The attorney general's office is reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment to The Associated Press Friday on whether it would refile the charges. State investigators have said David Nelson is considered a suspect and an investigation continues.
McGrath could not be reached for comment.
In a press release, the Montana Innocence Project pointed to the of DNA evidence that helped overturn the conviction of Lawrence and Jenkins in the 1994 homicide.
“We are very pleased with the Court’s order overturning the convictions against Fred Lawrence and Paul Jenkins,” Larry Mansch, the legal director for the Montana Innocence Project, said through a press release.
Mansch said in an interview that the Innocence Project had helped exonerate over 2,100 people in its 25 years of existence. In Montana, the Innocence Project has secured three exonerations so far, “we’re hoping these will be numbers four and five."
Larry Jent, Lawrence's attorney, said that Friday was "one of those days of gratitude" and pointed to the state law he helped write that allowed DNA testing to help change the appeals process for imprisoned people.
Jent also mentioned several different people that had helped with the hearing and the awaited response from Seeley.
"The current DCI agents did an extremely thorough job," Jent said. "There was no physical evidence to tie these guys to the crime scene. The case jumps off the page with the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction."
Greg Hampikian, Ph.D., the Boise State DNA expert who testified at the March hearing, said that he was "ecstatic."
Hampikian testified that there was almost no chance that Lawrence and Jenkins' DNA was at the scene of the crime, and a very high probability that Nelson’s DNA was found on a rope involved in the crime.
"When we started there was little hope," Hampikian said. But a break involving a piece of untested rope provided a spark. And when the DNA test had a hit in the Montana DNA database, Hampikian described it as "mindblowing."
“I have been waiting for this moment for many, many years,” said Lawrence in the Innocence Project press release. “I am very grateful for the amazing and dedicated work of the Montana Innocence Project. Their lawyers, experts, and investigators worked tirelessly on my behalf.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.