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Donald Nash

Other Missouri Exonerations
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Two ranchers discovered the body of 21-year-old Judy Spencer around noon on March 11, 1982 near an abandoned school house about eight miles southwest of the small town of Salem, Missouri.

Her body was partially nude, with her blouse and bra pulled up near her neck. Her shoes, jeans and underpants were found on and around a fence that separated the school property from woods.

A coroner would later report that Spencer had been strangled to death with the shoelace from her right shoe and then shot in the neck with a shotgun. Aside from her state of undress, there was no evidence of sexual assault.

Later that night, investigators found Spencer’s Oldsmobile about 20 miles away in the other direction. The car appeared to have been driven into a ditch and then abandoned. The dome light was on, Spencer’s keys and a windbreaker were inside, as were a can and a bottle of beer. A witness told police that the car hadn’t been there at 9 p.m. the night before.

Spencer’s boyfriend was a 39-year-old miner named Donald “Doc” Nash. He and Spencer had gotten into a big fight on March 10, after Spencer lied to Nash about her whereabouts and her drinking. Nash caught up with her outside of Janet Jones’s apartment. Spencer would later tell Jones that Nash said to her, “This is the last time you’ll ever lie to me bitch.” Jones said that Spencer interpreted the remark to mean that the relationship was over.

Nash had apparently also made a cutting remark about Spencer’s haircut, and Spencer washed and then restyled her hair in Jones’s sink before going home to the house that she owned and where she and Nash lived. The couple argued some more and then Spencer changed clothes and returned to Jones’s apartment, where she tried to get Jones to go out drinking. Jones declined, and Spencer said she was headed to the bars in the town of Houston, 45 minutes southwest of Salem.

Nash called Jones about 9:30 or 10 p.m. and asked Jones whether she knew where Spencer was. He said he had gone out and looked for her, and he was worried about Spencer drinking and driving. He then asked Jones to call him in the morning. After Nash got off work at about 3 p.m. on March 11, he and Jones continued looking for Spencer. When Nash got home, he received a call from the hospital, and he was told of Spencer’s death after his arrival there.

At the hospital, Sgt. Gary Dunlap with the Missouri State Highway Patrol interviewed Nash. Dunlap would later report that Nash seemed very upset and began to cry. He did not report any scratches or bruises on Nash. Jones gave investigators a list of people who might be “mad” at Spencer. Nash was not on the list.

While Nash did not have a strong alibi for the night of Spencer’s death, there was also nothing to suggest he was a leading suspect. There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting him to the crime scene at the abandoned school or to Spencer’s car in the ditch. Investigators were able to lift several fingerprints from Spencer’s car, but it would be years before they were able to identify the persons who left the prints.

The Dent County Sheriff’s Office also investigated the murder. But the trail ran dry. They had no real suspects and no witnesses. Nash moved out of Spencer’s house a few months after her death, which to Jones appeared as if he was moving on too quickly. He became president of the local miners’ union, and when the mine closed, he moved to Illinois and built a new life for himself.

The case received new attention in 1996, when investigators realized that the fingerprints from Spencer’s car had not been run through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). One of the prints came back as a match for a man named Anthony Feldman. He had an extensive criminal record, including a conviction for assault with intent to commit sexual abuse. At the time of Spencer’s death, he had been a gas-station attendant in Rolla, Missouri, about a half-hour north of Salem.

Feldman had moved to Quincy, Illinois. Investigators with the highway patrol visited him and asked how his fingerprint had shown up on Spencer’s car. Feldman didn’t have an answer, although he said it was possible Spencer had bought gas at the Mobil station. Under questioning, he admitted to drilling a peephole into the women’s restroom at the service station.

In 2008, at the urging of Spencer’s sister, the patrol’s crime laboratory tested genetic material found underneath Spencer’s fingernails. The nails had been clipped and filed away at the time of the autopsy, although a technician noted in his report that there didn’t seem to be any blood or skin under the nails. Ruth Montgomery, a forensic analyst at the crime lab, reported a trace mixture of DNA from Spencer and Nash in the clippings.

That seemed to prove little, because Spencer and Nash lived together. As Corporal Dorothy Taylor of the highway patrol would later tell TV journalist Paula Zahn, “It was a concern for us. They were boyfriend and girlfriend. It could be explained away.”

But Taylor remembered reading in the report that Spencer had washed her hair. “It was like this light bulb came on. I can remember going, ‘Oh my gosh. She washed her hair.’ It was like this epiphany.”

On March 27, 2008, a few days after Montgomery’s initial report, Sergeant Jamie Folsom prepared a probable cause statement for Nash’s arrest. It said in part:

“It was further determined that a mixture of Judy Spencer’s DNA and Doc Nash’s DNA was found under the left-hand fingernails of Judy Spencer and this DNA could have not have remained present during hair washing nor was it reportedly transferred during casual contact with Doc Nash. This mixture of DNA is often normally the result of a physical struggle.”

Nash was arrested that day, charged with capital murder, and brought back to Dent County.

Six months later, on October 2, 2008, Feldman shot himself to death with a shotgun. (It wasn’t the gun used in Spencer’s death.)

At the time of Nash’s arrest, Dent County sheriff’s deputies had also been investigating the case, but the two agencies moved in parallel with little coordination or cooperation.

The deputies were trying to interview a man named Alfred Heyer. He lived just east of where Spencer’s car ran off the road. He initially told police that he had first seen the car on March 11 on his way to work. But his job was in the other direction, and his normal route wouldn’t have taken him past the vehicle. He had also quickly moved away from Dent County after the murder.

Heyer’s fingerprints were now in the AFIS database, and on March 10, a lab reported that Heyer was the source of a print on Spencer’s passenger window. Deputies called Heyer in late March. According to reporting in the Riverfront Times, Heyer told the deputies he might have gone and looked inside an abandoned car, but he wouldn’t meet with the deputies or submit a DNA sample without a warrant.

The deputies told Heyer, who was living in Illinois, that they wished to eliminate him as a suspect. He responded, "If you want to eliminate me, hire a hitman to come up here and kill me, then you will eliminate me." Then he hung up.

A deputy wrote up a probable cause statement for Heyer and asked for input from Jessica Sparks, the Dent County Prosecutor. It was too late, she said. Her office had just charged Nash.

Around the same time, the Missouri Attorney General’s office began hearing complaints about Sparks’s behavior. She wasn’t filing criminal complaints, was seen as “paranoid” and “dangerous” by her colleagues, and was “obsessed” with the Spencer case. She also met privately with Nash’s attorney, Frank Carlson, angering her co-counsel, Assistant Attorney General Theodore Bruce.

Sparks withdrew from the Nash prosecution on May 19. The state then filed a petition to remove her from office, and she resigned in June 2009.

Nash’s trial was moved from Dent County to the circuit court in neighboring Crawford County and began in October 2009. The state built its case around the DNA evidence recovered from the fingernails. Bruce said in opening remarks:

“A lady named Ruth Montgomery, who has been doing DNA analysis for at least seven years, she is going to tell you that washing the hair would eliminate just about all the DNA underneath somebody’s fingernails.”

Prior to the trial, Carlson had deposed Montgomery. He had given her several scientific articles about the presence of DNA under fingernails. One 2009 study said that hygiene had no significant effect on the persistence of DNA in fingernail samples. Montgomery conceded that she had only read the study the day before her deposition, but she questioned the findings and said that this wasn’t a “well-researched topic.”

Carlson showed her several other case studies, all contradicting Montgomery’s thesis. Montgomery tried to draw a contrast between these findings, which involved washing hands, and what happened with Spencer, which was washing hair. She said in her deposition:

“It is my opinion that washing your hair, especially if a soap was used in a mechanical manipulation of the hair on the scalp and the scalp itself, would move the fingertips and there would be a greater likelihood of removing any – any debris that may be under the fingernails than simply washing the hands or running water over the hands.”

During her trial testimony, Montgomery was asked what effect an individual washing their hair would have on DNA underneath their fingernails.

She said: “I would expect that washing your hair, the mechanical manipulation of the scalp or the hair would remove DNA from underneath the fingernails. Shampoo is a detergent and that is actually one of the ingredients that we use to lyse open the cells, so cells would be lysed during that process.”

She explained that “lysing” was a process that broke open the cells and made it easier for the DNA to be washed away. “I cannot give you a quantity that would or would not persist under the fingernails, but I would expect that it would have a great effect.”

During his cross-examination, Carlson was able to get Montgomery to acknowledge that she didn’t know what type of shampoo Spencer used, whether the shampoo contained detergent, how Spencer scrubbed her scalp, and what type of contact she and Nash had when they argued later at their house. But he never asked her about her training and experience, or how she had come to her conclusion about the “great effect.”

In her testimony, Jones was now more critical of Nash. She noted that he had begun dating fairly soon after Spencer’s death, and she was adamant that Spencer had washed her hair with shampoo.

During Nash’s defense, Carlson presented his own forensic expert, who testified that the available scientific research suggested that the presence of Nash’s DNA under Spencer’s fingernails would be expected and did not indicate foul play.

Carlson also presented testimony from a former forensic chemist for the highway patrol. He testified that Nash’s hands had tested negative for gunshot residue on March 11, and that Spencer had a blood-alcohol content of .18 at the time of her death. Nash, who did not testify, had told Dunlap that when Spencer was drinking, she would “get in a car with anybody.” The prosecution used those words as a sign of Nash’s callousness.

Prior to trial, the state had moved to prevent Carlson from presenting any evidence about Feldman as an alternate suspect. Before Nash’s arrest, sheriff’s deputies had been building a case against Feldman. Along with the evidence of Feldman’s fingerprints and his violent past, they had several statements from witnesses who said they saw Spencer and Feldman together at a local bar.

Judge Donald Long sided with the prosecution, and the jury didn’t hear about Feldman.

During closing arguments, Bruce told jurors that Montgomery had found Nash’s DNA under all five fingernails. That was wrong. Carlson objected. Long ruled for the state. Bruce then told jurors that Montgomery “told you the fact that she [Spencer] had washed her hair would have wiped away any traces of DNA prior to that.” That also was a misstatement of Montgomery’s testimony. Carlson objected again, and the judge chastised him for interrupting Bruce.

Bruce wove an elaborate narrative for jurors, describing how after the fight outside the apartment, Nash had somehow found Spencer, then forced her car off a rural road, and prevented her from leaving. She had gotten in his truck willingly, Bruce said, and then he drove her to the abandoned school and strangled her with her shoelace.

“And any reasonable person, any police officer comes upon that scene is going to think it’s a sexual assault. Well, we know it’s not a sexual assault. We know it’s not a robbery. She was killed by the man who was angry with her. And when she said it was over, it was only on his terms that it was over.”

The jury convicted Nash of capital murder on October 29, 2009. He was 67 years old and sentenced to life without parole for 50 years.

In his initial appeal, Nash argued that the evidence used to convict him was insufficient and circumstantial. He also said Long had improperly excluded evidence pointing to Feldman as a possible suspect.

On May 17, 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the conviction. It said that Long ruled correctly in excluding evidence about Feldman, because it did not pass the state’s “direct-connection” rules on third-party guilt.

It also said that the DNA evidence was proper. “The jury, by its verdict, found that the State’s expert’s testimony suggesting that Nash’s DNA from under Judy’s fingernails that existed on the night before her murder would have been removed when she washed her hair,” the court wrote. “It is not this Court’s role to reweigh the DNA evidence to contradict the jury’s conclusions.”

Nash then moved to the federal courts, filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, on October 3, 2012. He was now represented pro bono by Charles Weiss, along with Stephen Snodgrass and Jonathan Potts, at the law firm of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in St. Louis. (Weiss had previously represented exoneree Joshua Kezer and Potts had represented David Robinson.)

After the petition was filed, Nash’s legal team had DNA testing done on Spencer’s shoe, which found the DNA of an unknown male contributor. Nash sought unsuccessfully to expand his petition to include this evidence, and his petition was denied on February 4, 2015. His appeal was rejected by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on November 24, 2015.

In both rulings, the courts suggested that the Missouri courts were the proper jurisdiction for Nash to pursue his claims of actual innocence and wrongful conviction.

Nash then filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of St. Francois County, where he was incarcerated at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correction Center in Bonne Terre.

His state petition raised several claims: that the state had presented inadmissible and erroneous expert testimony; that the state had mischaracterized the scientific evidence; that Long had improperly excluded evidence of an alternate suspect; and that Carlson had been ineffective at trial and in his initial appeal.

During a deposition on November 11, 2017, Montgomery recanted much of her testimony. She now said that rather than having a “great effect,” hair washing would only have “some effect” on eliminating DNA under the fingernails. She had trouble defining “some effect,” other than to say it was more than “no effect.” In addition, she said there was nothing in the evidence to allow her to conclude that Nash and Spencer had a violent confrontation.

A circuit court judge dismissed Nash’s petition, as did an appellate court. But on October 1, 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court sustained the petition and appointed St. Charles County Circuit Senior Judge Richard Zerr as special master to oversee the case, hold hearings and make recommendations.

Prior to the hearings, the two sides conducted discovery that resulted in an agreed-upon set of facts. The list included the state admitting that Montgomery’s testimony was flawed and unsupported by science. Importantly, the state conceded there was no evidence that could support Montgomery’s testimony that the presence of Nash’s DNA under Spencer’s fingernails implied a violent confrontation.

Zerr heard testimony from 11 witnesses, including Nash’s ex-wife, his daughter, and his brother, who each testified that Nash had never owned a shotgun.

Two former Dent County deputies noted that the tire tracks at the location of Spencer’s car and the abandoned school didn’t match Nash’s truck, and that they didn’t believe it was possible in 1982, before cellphones and GPS, for Nash to have located Spencer late at night on a rural road in the opposite direction of where she said she was going.

In the months after Nash was arrested, Spencer’s sister, Jeanne Paris, and sister-in law, Darla Spencer, had continued to pursue Heyer as a possible suspect. The women had gone to Illinois and persuaded Heyer to give a buccal swab for DNA analysis and had then told the highway patrol about her actions.

In a report dated September 11, 2009, Sgt. Scott Mertens wrote that: “Darla Spencer continued by explaining that Heyer acknowledged he knew that his fingerprints were found on Judy Spencer’s vehicle and according to Darla Spencer Heyer even admitted that he had possibly thrown trash into Judy Spencer’s vehicle when it was abandoned near his residence. Paris stated that it was at this time that Heyer expressed his concerns that his DNA could have been found on a beer can or bottle found in the trash he threw in Judy Spencer’s vehicle.”

This report was not disclosed to Nash’s attorney at trial. Montgomery and other employees of the highway patrol testified, but Folsom, who wrote the probable cause report, did not. Zerr would note in his recommendations that Folsom evaded subpoena servers.

Carlson, the trial and initial appellate attorney, testified that that he did not move to exclude Montgomery’s testimony about hair washing and DNA because he didn’t think he would win that argument. He said, “Junk science was being allowed in court all over the place in the state of Missouri during that period of time.”

A trial transcript showed Carlson never asked Montgomery about whether any scientific studies or research supported her theory.

Carlson acknowledged that he didn’t raise the problems with Montgomery’s testimony on appeal and also that he had too narrowly drawn his appeal of Long’s denial of the Feldman evidence.

Nash, who hadn’t testified at his trial, now testified before Zerr. He denied killing Spencer. He said he knew she was headed to Houston, and that he wouldn’t have gone looking for her in the place her car was found, which was in the other direction.

Zerr released his findings on July 2, 2020, recommending that the Missouri Supreme Court vacate Nash’s conviction. First, he said that Montgomery’s recantation and the DNA results from the shoe were both new evidence of innocence. He said the state’s case was an example of tunnel vision. It had no explanation for when and how Nash obtained a shotgun or how he found Spencer on the night of her death. There was no evidence that Spencer was scared of Nash, as shown by the fact that she returned to their house after their fight outside the apartment.

Zerr said Montgomery’s testimony about the effect of washing on DNA was not scientifically valid and should have never been admitted, and it was only made worse by Bruce misrepresenting her testimony in closing arguments.

The state argued that Bruce’s errors were unintentional, that Bruce himself misunderstood the evidence, but Zerr said that only underscored how easily the jury likely also misunderstood what was said.

He also noted that Bruce’s closing argument was riddled with errors and statements unsupported by any evidence. Bruce told jurors that Spencer wasn’t seen after the fight with Nash at the apartment. (She was.) He said Nash had forced Spencer’s car off the road and then staged a fake rape at the old school. (There was no testimony on either of these scenarios.)

Zerr also wrote that Carlson had provided ineffective legal representation. While his reasoning for not challenging Montgomery’s testimony might have been strategic, he failed to effectively cross-examine her and challenge the scientific validity of her testimony.

Zerr said that Nash should have been allowed to offer evidence about Feldman and that if the case was to be retried, the state would not be able to offer any opinion on the DNA found under Spencer’s nails. This evidence, he said, had no probative value. “It is like the police finding a defendant’s fingerprints inside his own house,” he wrote. “To assume that Nash’s DNA came from a violent struggle is pure speculation and, in fact, conflicts with Montgomery’s own opinion and the failure of the lab tech to find skin or blood under the nails when they were removed after autopsy.”

The Missouri Supreme Court quickly adopted Zerr’s recommendations on July 3, and Nash was transferred from prison that evening to the Dent County Jail, where he was formally released on July 4, 2020.

Initially, Dent County Prosecutor Andrew Curley indicated he would retry Nash and refiled the murder charge. But on October 10, he dismissed the case, stating that the new evidence had created reasonable doubt. “I hope and pray,” he said, “that justice can be delivered for Judy and her family in the future for this tragic loss of life.”

Nash turned 78 years old in July 2020. At the time of his release, he was among the oldest prisoners in the Missouri prisons. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation’s prisons, his health was impaired.

He told a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that when he was leaving the prison in Bonne Terre on July 3 to return to Dent County, he received a standing ovation from everyone – guards and inmates – as he made his way through the prison for the last time. “They all knew I was innocent,” he said.

– Ken Otterbourg

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 10/28/2020
Last Updated: 10/28/2020
State:Missouri
County:Dent
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1982
Convicted:2009
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*