MISSOULA – A judge vacated his murder conviction after DNA identified another person as the killer, and after two decades in prison he’s enjoying family, freedom and fried chicken.
"I never thought one time I’d see this day," said 64-year-old Paul Jenkins, who is spending his first 24 hours in 23 years a free man.
He has more catching up to do than he knows.
"Got grandkids I’ve never laid eyes on. I’d like to see them."
It took seven years for the Montana Innocence Project to bring Jenkins to this day. In an emotional interview, he told MTN News that knew his family was there outside the prison walls, waiting for him.
"Not none of my family turned their back on me. They all stayed with me all the way," Jenkins said. "I think that’s what made me want to keep fighting. Everybody stuck with me all the way, and I was happy."
He has his grandchildren teach him about Iphones and Netflix, and he has a lifetime to reconnect with his son and his daughter, Crystal, who lost him when she was just 14 years old. That will take time to process.
"Just going to be hard. It will be a day-by-day kind of thing," Jenkins said. "I just got the rest of my life to relive it and go on and make myself happy, I hope."
The DNA testing that freed him will no doubt be a player in other upcoming cases, and where prison time takes its toll, Jenkins knows it’s worth it.
"Don’t give up. Don’t give up no matter what you do. Just keep going."
Jenkins walked out of the prison medical facility in Lewistown on his prosthetic leg. He says it was important to him to walk out on his own steam.
He’s been looking forward to eating KFC, which he was was doing Wednesday.
There is a news conference Thursday at the University of Montana School of Law with the Montana Innocence Project to talk about the case at 10 a.m.
Jenkens’ family has also set up a GoFundMe page in order to provide him with basic necessities since leaving prison, as well as funds to help assist with medical costs.