Cost of Wrongful Incarceration
We’ve all seen those advertisements for reward money in exchange for information leading to an arrest in a crime. In 1994, a man responded to one of these with the wrong information, setting in motion the wrongful convictions of Fred Lawrence and Paul Jenkins.
Donna Meagher’s body is found in the Colorado Gulch
Just after midnight, on January 12, 1994, 34-year-old Donna Meagher was working the closing shift at her brother’s bar, the Jackson Creek Saloon, in Montana City, Montana. When she did not make it home that night, her family members started to worry and went to the saloon to look for her. Instead, they found the safe unlocked with $3,000 missing. Meagher’s truck was behind the building with the door ajar and the keys in the ignition.
At about 9:30 a.m. that same morning, Meagher’s body was found 18 miles away from the saloon in the Colorado Gulch. Investigators deduced that while closing the bar that night, Meagher was robbed, abducted, and struck in the head 10 to 12 times with the claw end of a hammer.
This violent case went cold until Crime Stoppers offered a reward for anyone willing to provide information. It was only then, around nine months after the crime, that Dan Knipschield stepped forward. Hoping to cash in on the reward, Knipschield told police that his 31-year-old son-in-law, Fred Lawrence, was involved.
In an attempt to assist authorities and incriminate Lawrence, Knipschield agreed to wear a concealed tape recorder and talk to Lawrence about the crime. Knipschield would later tell authorities that Lawrence admitted to committing the crime with 39-year-old Jenkins. However, due to a malfunction with the tape recorder, there was no actual recording of this conversation or alleged confession.
This did not prevent detectives from interviewing and confronting Lawrence. While Lawrence denied involvement in the crime, he implicated Jenkins and Jimmy Lee Amos, a mentally challenged man under the care of Jenkins and his wife. However, shortly after pointing the finger at Jenkins and Amos, Lawrence recanted the statement, telling investigators it was a lie.
Despite this recantation, detectives pushed ahead and interviewed Jenkins and Amos. They also interviewed Jenkin’s wife, Mary Jenkins, for around eight hours. It was during this lengthy interview that Mary Jenkins confessed to witnessing Paul Jenkins, Lawrence and Amos attack and bludgeon Meagher at the Jackson Creek Saloon.
The detectives conducting the interview that allegedly contained this incriminating testimony said it was recorded. However, the tape was never produced because it was lost in the mail. Yet, following the interview, in the fall of 1994, Paul Jenkins and Lawrence were both charged with Deliberate Homicide, Aggravated Kidnapping, and Robbery.
Convicted based on unreliable testimony
Several months later, in January 1995, a forensic psychiatrist examined Mary Jenkins who had given the testimony implicating Lawrence and Paul Jenkins. After this examination, it was concluded that Mary Jenkins suffered from dementia, organic brain damage, and had an IQ of 70. An IQ of this level was low enough to suggest restricted mental capacity. She would ultimately die within five years of the trial from complications related to Alzheimer’s.
However, Mary Jenkins was declared competent despite these diagnoses demonstrating her diminished mental bandwidth. The case’s prosecutor, Mike McGrath (who went on to become the Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court), went as far as to declare that he did not have a case against Lawrence and Paul Jenkins without Mary Jenkins’ testimony.
Lawrence and Paul Jenkins were tried in Lewis and Clark County District Court. The prosecution’s case relied on Mary Jenkin’s testimony and eyewitnesses who claimed to see cars resembling Lawrence’s Ford Torino and Paul Jenkin’s Toyota drive through Colorado Gulch on the night of the murder. There was no physical evidence linking neither Paul Jenkins nor Lawrence to the crime. But despite the severe lack evidence, on February 24, 1995, Lawrence and Paul Jenkins were convicted by separate juries who heard the case at the same time. Each was sentenced to 100 years in prison.
A new suspect emerges
In 2015, MTIP 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 Meagher’s body. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley granted the motion in August of 2016.
While waiting for the DNA test results, Fred Nelson implicated his uncle, David Nelson, in the murder of Meagher. Fred Nelson revealed that his uncle admitted to robbing the bar and killing Meagher. This was not the first time Fred Nelson brought this information forward. He told lawyers and law enforcement in 1988, 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. However, he did admit to driving a white Dodge in 1994, which one witness claimed to have seen driving away from the bar around closing time on the night of Meagher’s murder.
DNA testing demonstrates innocence
None of the DNA on the evidence tested was consistent with Lawrence or Paul 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 because Fred Nelson’s description of what his uncle told him about the murder was more consistent with the physical evidence than the prosecution’s theory of Lawrence and Paul Jenkins being the perpetrators.
Greg Hampikian, Director of the Idaho Innocence Project, provided DNA analysis for this case and worked with MTIP to find Meagher’s real killer.
Click here to listen to Boise State Public Radio’s interview with Hampikian.
Despite evidence implicating David Nelson, Meagher’s family remains convicted that Paul Jenkins and Lawrence are guilty.
Click below to listen to MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, discuss how wrongful convictions not only impact the people serving time for crimes they did not commit but also the victims and the families of victims who no longer have justice.
Lawrence and Jenkins are freed
The prosecution dismissed the charges on June 1, 2018, and Lawrence and Paul Jenkins were released from prison on April 17, 2018 after serving more than 23 years in prison each.
“I have been waiting for this moment for many, many years,” Lawrence said shortly after his release. “I am very grateful for the amazing and dedicated work of the Montana Innocence Project.”