HELENA, Mont. — A state judge has ordered DNA testing on several pieces of evidence collected during the investigation of a 1994 homicide in the Helena area, attorneys with the Montana Innocence Project said Friday.
Two men serving life sentences for kidnapping and killing Donna Meagher after robbing the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City argue they are innocent and that DNA testing could prove someone else was responsible.
A legal team for Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Jenkins petitioned for the testing in July 2015 under a law that allows convicted felons to seek testing if the identity of the perpetrator was a significant issue in the case and they can argue the evidence might establish their innocence.
“After reviewing the case, we believed there were many questions left unanswered,” Montana Innocence Project attorney Toby Cook said in a statement. “We simply wanted to find out the truth about what happened.”
Last month, the state agreed to the testing of several items, including a ligature found on the victim, a rope, a hair in the rope, the victim’s fingernail scrapings and clippings and a cigarette butt found near the victim. However, state prosecutors argued there was no evidence of sexual assault so other items, including a rape kit, should not be tested.
District Judge Kathy Seeley issued an order last week saying all the items should be turned over for testing within 14 days.
Larry Mansch, legal director with the Innocence Project, said Friday the DNA lab is busy and it could be several months before it will be able to process the evidence.
The Attorney General’s office has said it reopened the investigation based on new information that came to light after the petition was filed. Seeley ordered that information to be turned over to attorneys for Lawrence and Jenkins within 60 days. Mansch said he does not know what new information they were investigating.
The two men were convicted after a 1995 trial in which witnesses testified to seeing vehicles matching theirs near the saloon at the time of the murder and men they identified as Jenkins and Lawrence in the area where Meagher’s body was found west of Helena in the days after the murder.
They argue there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime and prosecutors had only circumstantial evidence.
The state notes that Lawrence told investigators that Jenkins had a lot of money after the homicide and unusual keys, like those used to open a pop machine. The bar was robbed of about $3,300, with most of the money being taken from gambling machines that were opened with a similar key. Lawrence later recanted his statements.
Fellow jail inmates testified that Lawrence talked about the crime, including identifying a pry bar as the murder weapon — information that had not been released to the public.
Lawrence’s in-laws told investigators that they overheard him saying if the woman hadn’t lied about how much money she had, she would still be alive. His mother-in-law said Lawrence had talked about being kicked out of Jackson Creek Saloon and that the bar deserved to be robbed, and that Jenkins said that could be arranged.
Lawrence argues that his in-laws aren’t reliable because his father-in-law was mentally ill and only implicated him in an effort to collect a reward for information about the crime.
Jenkins had tried to prevent his wife from testifying that she was there when Jenkins and Lawrence robbed the bar and kidnapped Meagher, arguing she was mentally impaired. Mary Jenkins died of Alzheimer’s disease about five years after the trial, court records said.