DNA Evidence Links Montana Killing to Convicted Murderer

Freddie Joe Lawrence, now 56, and Paul Jenkins, 64, were convicted of killing Meagher and sentenced to life in prison

By Associated Press

HELENA – Motions filed in court to overturn the homicide convictions of two men in a 1994 killing reveal that a man serving a life sentence for a double murder told family members he was responsible for the killing and newly available DNA evidence links him to the crime.

The nephew and former sister-in-law of David Wayne Nelson told investigators that Nelson told them he kidnapped and killed Donna Meagher as she closed up a family-owned casino in Montana City in January 1994 and that he has bragged about killing people in four other states. Public court records do not include any information on the supposed victims in Florida, California, Nevada and Washington.

Freddie Joe Lawrence, now 56, and Paul Jenkins, 64, were convicted of killing Meagher and sentenced to life in prison. A state law passed in 2015 allowed them to petition for DNA testing on case evidence.

Based on recent tests and Nelson’s reported statements, the Montana Innocence Project is asking a judge to overturn their deliberate homicide convictions and release them from prison. A hearing is set for Friday in Helena. The state opposes the motions, which were filed earlier this year and unsealed last week.

Nelson has denied making such statements or having anything to do with Meagher’s murder, the attorney general’s office said in its response.

Tests on a rope found near the site west of Helena where Meagher was killed included Meagher’s blood and DNA belonging to Nelson, the petition said. Nelson, 55, is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to killing Bev Giannonatti, 79, and her son, Greg Giannonatti, 57, in Deer Lodge in October 2015.

Prosecutors said Nelson, a handyman, stole and sold more than $26,000 worth of silver belonging to Greg Giannonatti and killed him and his mother when confronted about the theft. He dumped their bodies out of town, authorities have said.

Another unknown DNA profile was found on other evidence in the Meagher case, but no DNA belonging to Jenkins or Lawrence was found, The Montana Innocence Project argued.

The case against Nelson is still under investigation and no charges have been filed, the state Department of Justice said Monday. The state public defender’s office said it had not been appointed to represent Nelson in any new cases.

Nelson’s former sister-in-law and nephew told law enforcement officers twice before the Deer Lodge murders that Nelson had confessed to killing Meagher, court records said.

“However, because they had no further evidence (the family members) were told there was nothing that could be done,” the filing said.

The family members, identified in court documents by their initials, spoke with law enforcement officers in Dillon in March 2016 — after Nelson had been charged with killing the Giannonattis.

The state re-opened its investigation. In addition to details about the Meagher murder, the nephew told investigators about crimes he helped plan, attempt or commit with Nelson, including a 1998 home invasion of an elderly couple in Ravalli County. Nelson was convicted of aggravated kidnapping while his nephew, Fred Nelson, was convicted of aggravated assault.

The nephew said Nelson had bragged about being a hit man and killing people in Florida and California, while Nelson’s former sister-in-law said he had bragged about killing people in those states as well as Nevada and Washington, court records said. Further information on those allegations were filed under seal and are still under investigation, the state Department of Justice said Monday.

“The results of these interviews show Nelson may be a serial killer whose killing fields span as many as five states,” attorney Toby Cook wrote in Lawrence’s petition.

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