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DNA Exonerates 2 Men in Montana

Wrongful Murder Conviction Corrected Two Decades Later

DNA Exonerates 2 Men in Montana
Constitutional Rights

DNA Exonerates 2 Men in Montana

By Tim Ravndal

In January 1994, a tragedy happened with the kidnapping and murder of Donna Meagher. The law enforcement of the two main counties investigating the robbery and murder at the Jackson Creek Saloon were desperate to get a conviction in the case.

DNA Exonerates 2 Men in Montana
Photo by Montana Innocence Project

Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Chuck O’Reilly and Jefferson County Sheriff Tom Dawson were facing political elections at the time. With political and social pressure, the need to close the case made headlines nearly every day.

Attorneys for Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Kenneth Jenkins allege law enforcement manipulated the taped interviews with Mary Jenkins, threatened to prosecute her and remove her children if she did not cooperate, as well as fabricated reports.

In the end, the two men went to jail, each with a life sentence based on the actions of multiple law enforcement agencies.

Attorneys began a process of appeal on behalf of the defendants, seeking justice for Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence. The effort to seek the truth in the case found the wheels of justice were not oiled and ground to a near stop.

In Ravalli County, a relative of David Wayne Nelson (a handyman currently serving a life sentence for two murders) had given evidence to the Sheriff’s Department. This evidence could have exonerated the two men, however, Jenkins and Lawrence claim it was ignored.

In 2015, Montana law was revised concerning post-conviction DNA allowing convicted persons to petition for DNA testing and usage within their cases. This case qualified.

The Montana Innocence Project took up the case in 2012, and in 2015 filed petitions on behalf of Jenkins and Lawrence to have the rope found near Meagher’s body tested for DNA. David Nelson’s DNA was found on the rope, and still nothing tied Jenkins and Lawrence to the crime.  The evidence showed the murder Nelson was convicted of was committed the same way as was done in the Donna Meagher Case.

Finally, in April of 2018, the convictions were overturned with Lawrence and Jenkins finally released.

U.S. District Court will now hear from attorneys that the convictions were a result of deliberately collaborating to secure a conviction in the high-profile case. A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Montana this summer that alleges the wrongful convictions of the two defendants.

In the new case, Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence are claiming violations of their rights to due process and a fair trial.  In addition, criminal activity against public officials is now on the table for reckless duty and illegal prosecution with a substantial number of other allegations to be heard.

The plaintiffs in the case also include the children of Paul Jenkins.  It is unknown the amount of damages being sought, but that amount will be determined at trial.

Across America the people are seeing headlines where misconduct at different levels of government undermine the rule of law and the public trust.  This brings to question how deep is the corruption and how does it affect everyone? Montana now has the opportunity to do the right thing and build the public trust. Will they come through?


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