Cost of Wrongful Incarceration
Donna Meagher’s Body is Found in the Colorado Gulch
Thirty-four-year-old Donna Meagher’s body was found in the Colorado Gulch at about 9:30 a.m. on January 12, 1994. Investigation revealed that the night before while she was closing the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City, Montana, Meagher was robbed, abducted, and struck in the head 10 to 12 times with the claw end of a hammer. The bar was found unlocked and missing $3,000, and Meagher’s truck was behind the building with the door open and keys in the ignition.
The case was cold until a Crime Stoppers reward was offered for providing information about the crime. Attempting to collect the reward, Dan Knipschield told police that his son-in-law, 31-year-old Fred Lawrence, was involved. Knipschield agreed to wear a tape recorder while talking to Lawrence.
The recorder malfunctioned, but Knipschield told the detectives that Lawrence admitted to murdering Meagher with 39-year-old Paul Jenkins during their conversation. When the detectives confronted Lawrence, he denied involvement in the crime and instead implicated Jenkins and another man named Jimmy Lee Amos. Although, he recanted that statement shortly after.
Despite Lawrence’s recantation, detectives interviewed Jenkins, his wife, Mary Jenkins, and Amos. According to detectives, Mary Jenkins said she witnessed Paul Jenkins, Lawrence, and Amos attack Meagher at the Jackson Creek Saloon. The detectives conducting the interview said it was recorded, but the tape was never produced. Following the interview, Jenkins and Lawrence were both charged with deliberate homicide, aggravated kidnapping, and robbery.
Lawrence and Jenkins are Convicted Based on Unreliable Testimony
A few months after Mary Jenkins implicated Jenkins, Lawrence, and Amos, it was revealed that she had dementia, an IQ of 70, and organic brain injury. Amos was found incompetent to stand trial due to his diminished mental capacity, but Mary Jenkins was declared competent despite several diagnoses also demonstrating diminished mental capacity.
Lawrence and Jenkins were tried in Lewis and Clark County District Court. No physical evidence linked them to the crime. The prosecution’s case relied on Mary Jenkin’s testimony and a few witnesses who claimed to see cars resembling Lawrence’s Ford Torino and Jenkins’s Toyota drive through Colorado Gulch on the night of the murder. However, on February 24, 1995, Lawrence and Jenkins were convicted and sentenced to 100 years each.
MTIP Takes the Cases
In 2015, the Montana Innocence Project filed a motion for DNA testing of physical evidence from the crime scene including vaginal swabs, hair fibers, fingernail clippings, rope, and a cigarette butt found near her body. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley granted the motion in August 2016.
A New Suspect Emerges
While waiting for the DNA test results, Fred Nelson implicated his uncle, David Wayne Nelson. Fred Nelson revealed that his uncle admitted to robbing the bar and killing Meagher. This was not the first time he brought this information forward. He told lawyers and law enforcement in 1998, but they said nothing could be done without corroborating evidence.
By this time, David Nelson was incarcerated for murdering two people in Deer Lodge, Montana, in 2015. Similar to Meagher, both victims were beaten to death with a hammer. When investigators interviewed David Nelson, he denied killing Meagher but admitted to driving a white Dodge in 1994, which one witness saw driving away from the bar around closing time.
DNA Testing Demonstrates Lawrence and Jenkins Innocence
None of the DNA on the evidence tested was consistent with Lawrence or Jenkins. Additionally, a DNA profile extracted from the rope found near Meagher’s body was consistent with David Nelson’s DNA. Based on this discovery, MTIP filed a motion to vacate the convictions in January 2018. Judge Seeley granted the motion based on the newly discovered DNA evidence and the fact that Fred Nelson’s description of what his uncle told him about the murder was more consistent with the physical evidence.
Lawrence and Jenkins are Freed
Lawrence and Jenkins were released from prison on April 17, 2018, and the prosecution dismissed the charges on June 1, 2018.