MISSOULA – There’s a shocking development in a decades-old Montana murder case with new evidence that could set Paul Jenkins’s and Fred Lawrence free after more than 20 years in prison.
A jury convicted Jenkins and Lawrence for the murder of Donna Meagher who was kidnapped and beaten to death outside a bar west of Helena. However, the Montana Innocence Project reviewed the evidence and what they uncovered has shaken this case to the core.
The new DNA tests on crime scene evidence shows that it belongs to a David Wayne Nelson, a man already in prison for killing a Deer Lodge area mother and son two years ago, and who had served time for a violent attack on a Hamilton woman in the late 1990’s.
It not only means two men imprisoned for two-decades could go free, but as Jill Valley reports, it means a family torn apart will finally be reunited with their father.
“I remember the door shutting and it being dark and the first words out of their mouths is, ‘you’re never going to see your daddy alive again’,” recalled Crystal Combs.
She and her siblings never believed her father was a killer but living with a father behind bars was confusing.
“I’ve went through times in my life where I tried to force my life [to] accept the reality of what it was, but I never got to the point where I believed he was guilty,” Combs said.
Meagher was closing up at the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City in January of 1994 when she was robbed, kidnapped and beaten to death with a crowbar. Her body was found later that day.
Prosecutors convinced the juries the two men were guilty. Paul Jenkins appealed several times and was always denied.
But in 2003 the Montana legislature allowed the convicted to petition for DNA testing. Back in 1994, it was still an emerging investigative tool. The Montana Innocence Project got involved and was allowed to perform DNA tests on pieces of evidence in the case — and the DNA didn’t match.
“I’m grateful he lived to see the day he’s not guilty…label off him,” Combs said.
Now, almost 24 later, Crystal is now on the verge of reconnecting with a father lost long ago — if her emotions are all over the place, imagine how he’s feeling.
“He’s really excited. He’s beside himself. He’s not sure how to feel either. I think we’re all overwhelmed and a little confused at this point. My emotions go from happy to sad to angry to confused and that can happen in 60 seconds,” Combs said.
“I can be smiling but by the end of my sentence, I could be crying Because I don’t understand. I don’t understand how all the opportunities were there to get the right person. And my entire life was changed,” Combs added.
Paul Jenkins has been in the prison infirmary in Lewistown. He lost both legs to diabetes but his lawyer says he plans to use his prosthetics to walk out. It will, of course, depend on what the judge decides to do with the motion to release.
Paul Jenkin’s lawyer, Thad Adkins is working this case with the Montana Innocence Project, issued the following statement, “Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence have spent more than 23 years in state custody for crimes they did not commit. We hope that the Attorney General’s office will determine that the interests of justice outweigh defending these wrongful convictions and stipulate to Paul and Fred’s release from Prison.”
He also says the Montana Innocence Project deserves enormous credit for uncovering new evidence and bringing this story to light.
Reporting by Jill Valley for MTN News
MISSOULA – New DNA tests could mean freedom for a pair of men who’ve spent decades behind bars for the 1994 murder of a Helena-area woman.
The Montana Innocence Project says that new testing on crime scene evidence points to a different killer — a man already serving time for murder.
Lawyers for Paul Jenkins, 63, and Fred Lawrence, 55, filed a motion in Helena District Court to overturn the conviction and immediately release the two men believing the new forensic evidence points to the real killer — David Nelson, 55.
Lawyers say new forensic testing reveals it is Nelson’s DNA at the crime scene and not the two men convicted for the crime 23 years ago. That motion was filed last month and unsealed this week by Judge Kathy Seeley.
Nelson is already in prison for the murders of Bev Giannonatti,79, and Greg Giannonatti, 57. He also served time for aggravated assault out of Ravalli County in 1998.
In 1994, Donna Meagher was robbed, kidnapped and beaten to death as she was closing up for the night at the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City. Her body was found later that morning.
Jenkins and Lawrence were arrested months later and tried at the same time with two separate juries during a Lewis and Clark county trial led by then-County Attorney Mike McGrath.
The motion to release Jenkins and Lawrence from prison will be heard in Judge Kathy Seeley’s court in Helena on March 9 where she’ll decide the next steps in the case.