MISSOULA – It took seven years from the time the Montana Innocence Project first took a look at the case of Paul Jenkins and Freddie Lawrence, who were convicted of the 1994 murder of Donna Meagher and the robbery of the Jackson Creek Saloon.
Lewis and Clark Co. District Judge Kathy Seeley ordered the convictions in a decades-old murder case vacated Friday and ordered a new trial. It was an exciting day for the lawyers who didn’t give up.
“This never gets old. It feels exactly now as it was on our first exoneration. One of our attorney’s is Larry Gent of Bozeman, and he told him in his entire legal career, this is the most gratifying result. And it’s hard to disagree,” said Larry Mansch with the Montana Innocence Project.
The years of hard work, of poring over documents and DNA results, paid off when Judge Seeley vacated the life sentences of Jenkins and Lawrence. It was a case that came down to science.
“DNA was huge because there was DNA on pieces of evidence that hadn’t been tested ever…a long, long time ago, 25 years or so, so we were hopeful those results would exclude out clients which they did but we also uncovered new evidence if innocence that had never been presented to a jury and the person who matched the DNA had confessed to the crime to members of his family,” Mansch explained.
The Montana Legislature passed an enhanced post DNA conviction statue in 2015 that expanded the rule of law about forensic testing after a conviction. The Montana Innocence Project believes this could the first case of its kind to use that new law.
“DNA is probably my favorite kind of forensic science to work with because it’s so definitive,” said Toby Cook with the Montana Innocence Project. “When you have statistics like 1-in-10 septillion — which we did in this case — that’s pretty definitive.”
The ruling means Jenkins and Lawrence can no longer be in prison so as soon as possible, they’ll be released from prison custody and likely transported to the Lewis and Clark county jail until the state and defense lawyers negotiate what’s next in the case. Their lawyers know the next few weeks will be both exciting and unsettling for these men.
“They’ve got a lot of catching up to do with their families. They can’t dwell on the past, they must move forward to enjoy the rest of their lives,” Cook said.
MTN News spoke with Paul Jenkin’s daughter who told us they’re a little overwhelmed by the news but looking forward to bringing him home.