MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Two men who served more than 23 years in prison before being exonerated of a murder charge are suing three counties and several people who investigated the 1994 killing of a woman at her family’s bar and casino in Montana City.
Federal lawsuits filed Tuesday by Paul Jenkins and Freddie Joe Lawrence allege investigators acted on a tip from a known liar, coerced a confession from Lawrence, coerced mentally challenged people to corroborate false evidence and failed to follow up on evidence that linked the case to another man whose DNA was eventually found on a rope near the victim’s body.
Anna Benvenutti Hoffman, an attorney for Lawrence, told the Missoulian “law enforcement misconduct throughout the investigation” kept two innocent men in prison and “allowed the true perpetrator to remain free and kill again.”
A hearing that led to the exoneration of Jenkins and Lawrence revealed that DNA testing linked the killing of Donna Meagher to David Wayne Nelson. He is serving a life sentence in the killing of a man and his mother in 2015, but has not been charged in the Meagher case.
The lawsuits name Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Ravalli counties along with several investigators, including one with the state Division of Criminal Investigation. Jenkins and Lawrence are seeking monetary damages for the loss of freedom and loss of contact with family members. Jenkins, who has diabetes, also seeks damages for the loss of his legs, claiming inadequate medical care.
Calls to county attorney offices in Ravalli and Jefferson counties for comment were not returned. Lewis and Clark County referred calls to the state attorney general’s office, which said Wednesday it would be improper to comment on an active, open investigation.
The state’s Risk Management and Tort Division, which is responsible for defending the former DCI agent, also declined to comment.
The complaints echo arguments made in appeals of the convictions and by the Montana Innocence Project:
— Jefferson County relied on an allegation from Lawrence’s father-in-law that Lawrence had confessed to the killing, even though he described the wrong murder weapon, was diagnosed with a mental illness, had previously provided police with false leads and even suggested one of the investigators might have killed Meagher;
— Investigators interrogated Lawrence, despite his request for an attorney, until he implicated Jenkins and a developmentally disabled man in the killing; Lawrence recanted the next day;
— Investigators offered details to and coerced statements from the mentally disabled man and from Jenkins’ wife, who had dementia, and selectively recorded only parts of those conversations; the man was found unfit to testify and Mary Jenkins testified she could not remember any details of the crime.
The lawsuit also alleges Ravalli County authorities did not forward to Lewis and Clark or Jefferson county investigators information from David Nelson’s nephew, Fred Nelson, who told them in 1999 that his uncle had bragged about killing a casino worker with a hammer and thought it was cool that two other men were convicted.
Officers took a picture of David Nelson’s vehicle, which matched the description of a car seen at the Jackson Creek Saloon on the night Meagher was kidnapped, as well as a car seen where her body was found west of Helena, the lawsuits state.
Despite the fact that the bar was robbed of a stack of $5 bills stamped with red stars, investigators did not follow up on a report of a woman spending a large number of $5 bills at a Helena department store, the lawsuits state.
District Judge Kathy Seeley vacated Lawrence and Jenkins’ deliberate homicide convictions in April 2018 after learning of the DNA evidence, testimony from Fred Nelson and from the department store worker.
Seeley dismissed the charges against both men in June 2018.
Information from: Missoulian