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Freddie Joe Lawrence

Other Montana Innocence Organization Exonerations
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Sometime between 12:45 a.m. and 1:36 a.m. on January 12, 1994, 34-year-old Donna Meagher was robbed and abducted from the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City, Montana. She was beaten to death and her body was dumped in Colorado Gulch.

The bar was owned by her brother and Meagher had worked the late shift, which meant she closed up. When she did not come home,, family members went to the saloon. They found the door unlocked and the gambling machines flashing. Her pickup truck, which had been in the saloon parking lot, was found behind a restaurant with the door open and the keys in the ignition.

Her body was found about 9:30 a.m. She had been bound with a cord. Police recovered an earring that had been pulled off. An autopsy showed she had been struck in the head 10 to 12 times with the claw end of a hammer.

Law enforcement obtained a tape from the cash register at the saloon, which showed the last payout for slot machine winnings was at 12:45 a.m. Audit tapes from Keno machines in the saloon showed that the machines were all opened in rapid succession beginning at 1:26 a.m. About $3,000 was taken in the robbery.

The crime went unsolved until Dan Knipschield, who was in the Jefferson County jail, told investigators that his son-in-law, 31-year-old Freddie Joe Lawrence was involved. Knipschield, who was attempting to collect on a Crime Stoppers reward, agreed to wear a concealed tape recorder and talk to Lawrence about the crime.

Knipschield told authorities that Lawrence admitted to committing the crime with 39-year-old Paul Jenkins, although there was no recording because of a malfunction. On August 31, 1994, law enforcement officers went to West Yellowstone, Montana, where they interviewed Lawrence, who was in the Park County jail on a traffic violation. Lawrence denied involvement but implicated Jenkins and Jimmy Lee Amos, a mentally challenged man under the care of Jenkins and his wife.

Lawrence asked to be moved to the Jefferson County Jail in Boulder, Montana in return for his cooperation. Once he was transferred there, Lawrence recanted his statement and said it was all a lie.

Nonetheless, law enforcement went to Oklahoma where they interviewed Jenkins, his wife Mary, and Amos. Mary Jenkins was interviewed for eight hours, during which she said that Lawrence came over and borrowed a crowbar and then she accompanied Paul, Lawrence, and Amos to the Saloon. She said she was outside and looked through a window to see Meagher tied up and Lawrence playing with a toy car behind the bar. She said she heard a hitting noise, saw Meagher on the ground, and saw Lawrence hit her. She said Amos then put Meagher into the car.

The officers said the interview was recorded. But they decided to mail it to Montana and it never arrived.

In the fall of 1994, Paul Jenkins and Lawrence were both charged with deliberate homicide, aggravated kidnapping, and robbery.

In January 1995, Dr. William Stratford, a forensic psychiatrist, examined Mary Jenkins. He concluded that she suffered from dementia and had an IQ of 70, which reflected a severely diminished mental capacity. Prior to Stratford’s examination, she had been admitted to a hospital in Oklahoma, where she was diagnosed with organic brain damage. She would die within five years of the trial from Alzheimer’s disease.

A competency hearing was held. Amos was declared incompetent to testify because of his diminished mental capacity, but Mary Jenkins was declared competent. During the hearing, County Attorney Mike McGrath said that without Mary Jenkins’s testimony, “we do not have a case. We are not able to proceed.”

Lawrence and Jenkins went to trial in Lewis and Clark County District Court. There was no physical evidence linking either man to the crime. The prosecution’s case hinged largely on the testimony of Mary Jenkins.

In addition, several witnesses claimed to have seen a car resembling Lawrence’s Ford Torino or Jenkins’s Toyota drive through Colorado Gulch.

Some of that was shown to be wrong. For example, Robert Taunt, a Colorado Gulch resident, identified a photograph of the Toyota as a car he saw driving through Colorado Gulch. However, Brian Hallenberg, Jenkins’s next-door neighbor, testified that when Jenkins bought the car, it had to be pushed to his home and that he never saw the car moved from the property.

Lawrence and Jenkins both testified and denied any involvement in the crime. Lawrence said his initial statement implicating Jenkins was a lie.

On February 24, 1995, Lawrence and Jenkins were convicted by separate juries who heard the case at the same time. They were both sentenced to 100 years in prison.

A motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence that Mary Jenkins suffered from night blindness and that Knipschield suffered from episodic schizophrenia was denied.

In October 1997, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the convictions.

In August 2015, lawyers for the Montana Innocence Project filed a motion seeking DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case. The motion sought testing of vaginal swabs, hair fibers, fingernail clippings and scrapings from Meagher, as well as testing of Meagher’s jewelry, glasses, and clothing. It also sought testing of a “shake-a-day” jar at the salon, a rope used to bind Meagher, a cigarette butt found near her body, and a glove tag found in the saloon parking lot near where Meagher had parked her truck when she came to work.

In August 2016, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley granted the motion. In March 2017, while the testing was being conducted, Fred Nelson reported to law enforcement in Dillon, Montana that his uncle, David Wayne Nelson, had admitted that he robbed the saloon and killed Meagher.

Fred Nelson said he told lawyers and law enforcement in 1998 that Nelson admitted to the crime during the summer of 1994—several months after Meagher was killed. However, he said he was told nothing could be done because there was no other evidence.

Fred Nelson provided details about the robbery and murder of Meagher that matched details of the crime. He also provided details of numerous other crimes connecting David Nelson to murders in Montana, Florida, California, Nevada, and Washington.

Fred Nelson told investigators about crimes he helped plan, attempt or commit with David Nelson, including a 1998 home invasion of an elderly couple in Ravalli County. David Nelson was convicted of aggravated kidnapping in that case while Fred Nelson was convicted of aggravated assault.

Fred Nelson said David Nelson had bragged about being a hit man and killing people in Florida and California, while David Nelson’s former sister-in-law said he had bragged about killing people in those states as well as Nevada and Washington. Those claims were under investigation, according to the Montana Department of Justice.

David Nelson was convicted of a 2015 double murder in Deer Lodge, Montana (both victims were beaten to death with a hammer) and was sentenced to life in prison. Investigators interviewed him twice and he denied involvement in Meagher’s murder. However, he did admit that the time of the crime, he was driving a white Dodge. A witness had testified at the trial about seeing a white car pull out of the parking lot of the saloon in the early morning hours.

In January 2018, Montana Innocence Project lawyers filed a motion to vacate the convictions. The motion said that DNA from Lawrence and Jenkins was not found on any of the evidence in the case. Moreover, a DNA profile recovered from a piece of rope found near Meagher’s body had been identified through the Montana state DNA database as that of David Nelson.

In April 2018, following a hearing, Judge Seeley granted the motion and vacated the convictions of Lawrence and Jenkins. The judge noted that Fred Nelson’s description of what David Nelson told him about the robbery and murder of Meagher was “more consistent with the physical evidence from the crime scene and the DNA results than another statement offered” in the case. “The physical evidence, and the statements and testimony of Fred Nelson, support the theory that David Nelson, a known killer, was involved in the robbery, kidnapping and homicide of Donna Meagher.”

On April 17, 2018, Lawrence and Jenkins were released from prison. On June 1, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/13/2018
State:Montana
County:Lewis and Clark
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:100 years
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:31
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes