MISSOULA - MTN News was first to report on two men who are serving life sentences for a 1994 murder could be set free next week after new evidence indicates somebody else may have committed the crime.
A Lewis and Clark County jury convicted the men for the murder of Donna Meagher, who was kidnapped from a tavern in Montana City then beaten to death. But after the Montana Legislature allowed DNA testing on old crimes, the Montana Innocence Project got involved in the case.
Lawyers tell MTN News the new forensic evidence shows DNA at the crime scene belongs to someone else and not Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence. That DNA points to another man: David Nelson who is already serving life sentences for murder.
A judge will hear motions for immediate release for the two men on Friday in Helena -- meaning that after 23 years in prison, she could decide to let them go free.
Paul Jenkins' attorney Thad Adkins gives the Montana Innocence Project the credit for changing the course of this case.
The Montana Innocence Project has worked for 25 years to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. and to date, 354 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing -- including 20 who served time on death row.
The Montana Innocence Project was formed in 2008 and has since that time has exonerated three Montanans using DNA testing and has seven other cases in active litigation.
Pro Bono attorney’s put in roughly 750 hours of work to help set innocent inmates free in 2017 alone and although the job can be demanding, it’s the end goal that keeps them moving forward.
“It’s because it’s a labor of love. We have a lot of volunteers, a lot of really dedicated folks that work with us. It’s tough work though because it’s hard to find evidence -- real evidence of innocence on behalf of people that want to become our clients," said Montana Innocence Project legal director Larry Mansch. "But, when we find it, we go at it with everything and it’s the best thrill you can imagine in the legal sense.”
The group has 40 cases under investigation and has screened more than 750 inquiries since they began nearly 10 years ago.