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Montana Innocence Project marks “day of gratitude and celebration”

Posted at 6:12 PM, Apr 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-19 20:12:14-04

MISSOULA – It took seven years, countless court hearings and DNA testing to free two men serving live sentences in the Montana State Prison for murder.

On Thursday,  Paul Jenkins and Freddie Lawrence stood with the Montana Innocence Project (MTIP) to thank those who never gave up on them. 

It was a day of gratitude to celebrate MTIP, the justice system and the lawyers who freed two men once serving life sentences for murder.

"This is absolutely, as a lawyer, the culmination of a long career and the best thing I’ve ever done professionally,” said MTIP attorney Larry Jent.

Paul Jenkins and Freddie Lawrence left prison this week after serving almost 24 years. In 1994, a jury convicted them for the murder and kidnapping of Donna Meagher in Montana City. They were sent to prison for the rest of their lives.

But just a few years ago, Montana’s enhanced post-conviction DNA law allowed new testing on evidence in the case. The results from genetic testing on a piece of rope from the crime blew the case wide open.

“There was a mixture of DNA that contained Donna Meagher and a male," Jent said. "That male’s DNA is not the DNA of the two men on my left. They were excluded to some astronomical statistic, like one in ten billion."

“This case has worked out precisely the way we believe the legislature intended that it work, and we were pleased with the outcome," said MTIP Staff Attorney Toby Cook. "They have not been exonerated yet, but we are hopeful to come to that point very soon.”

On Thursday, Paul and Fred met all those who worked hard on their behalf the past seven years, those who believed in their innocence.

They’re adjusting to the freedom neither thought they’d ever see.

“It’s hard to explain. Joy," Fred said. "I was scared to come out because I’d been in there for 24 years. I was happy. Don’t get me wrong I was glad to get out but it’s a big adjustment."

They’ve entered a brand new world of cell phones and the internet. Fred hopes to go to college, but where Paul Jenkins has returned to his family, Fred is the one the most damaged by the passage of time.

“My wife died while I was inside. My mother died while I was inside," Fred said. "My daughters were adopted out because I lost my parental rights. I have no idea where my daughters are right now. If anyone can help me with that, I’d be grateful.”

Both Fred and Paul tell us they are not angry at the time they’ve lost. Both are ready to live out the rest of their lives. It’s a story the Montana Innocence Project hopes to repeat and is already researching new cases in hopes of freeing the wrongfully-convicted. 

How the rest of the case will play out could be determined in the next six weeks. The DNA found at the crime scene matched that of David Wayne Nelson, who is already in prison for murder.