HELENA – A Montana judge on Friday vacated the deliberate homicide convictions of two men serving life sentences in the 1994 death of a Helena woman, saying evidence presented at a hearing last month far exceeds the standard of a reasonable probability of a different outcome at trial.
District Judge Kathy Seeley’s ruling overturned convictions of robbery, aggravated kidnapping and deliberate homicide against Freddie Joe Lawrence, 56, and Paul Jenkins, 64, in the death of Donna Meagher, who was kidnapped from a family owned casino in Montana City on Jan. 12, 1994, and killed west of Helena.
Seeley heard arguments on March 9 on motions filed by the Montana Innocence Project to overturn the convictions including DNA evidence on a rope found at the scene that matched David Nelson, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to killing two people in Deer Lodge in October 2015. Nelson invoked his right not to testify.
Seeley also heard from Fred Nelson, David Nelson’s nephew, who said he told law enforcement officers three times, dating back to 1999, that his uncle had bragged about robbing a casino and killing a woman.
Fred Nelson testified his uncle took him to a spot west of Helena where he said it happened and “thought it was cool” that he got away with it and two other men were convicted.
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.
However, she rejected the Montana Innocence Project’s motion for the charges to be dismissed 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.
“I have been waiting for this moment for many, many years,” Jenkins said in a statement. “I am very grateful for the amazing and dedicated work of the Montana Innocence Project.”
Project founder and president Dan Weinberg said the organization is dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted individuals.
“We are happy that the court has recognized the obvious injustice that occurred in this case, and we are determined to carry on the fight for our clients. Justice will finally occur when they are freed, and that day is coming.”
The attorney general’s office is reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment Friday on whether it would re-file the charges. State investigators have said Nelson is considered a suspect and an investigation continues.
The case was prosecuted by current Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath in one trial before two juries.