Forensic Magazine

DNA Mixture on Rope from 1994 Murder Could Exonerate 2 Prisoners
March 12, 2018
By Seth Augenstein

Paul Jenkins listens to testimony Friday, March 9, 2018 in Helena, Mont., during a hearing to review new DNA evidence related to the murder of Donna Meagher, which Jenkins was convicted of in 1995. (Photo: Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

A DNA mixture on a piece of bloody rope found near a woman’s body alongside a Montana road in 1994 could mean a huge reversal of fortune for three men, experts told Forensic Magazine.

Paul Kenneth Jenkins and Fred Joe Lawrence were convicted in 1995 by separate juries of killing Donna Meagher and robbing the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City. They’ve been serving life sentences in state prison ever since.

The third man is David Wayne Nelson, who has since been convicted of a separate double murder—and who was only connected to the Meagher crime scene by advanced DNA testing 24 years later.

Jenkins and Lawrence asked for the DNA testing of the evidence found at the crime scene in 2016, a year after Montana passed an exoneration law allowing convicted felons to petition for DNA testing.

The DNA testing was carried out on the bloody rope. The resulting mixture included blood from the victim Meagher, who was closing up for the night at the Montana City saloon when she was robbed, kidnapped and beaten to death, according to published accounts.

The other profile included in the mixture was Nelson, according to the new analysis performed by Greg Hampikian, a DNA expert at Boise State University, who did the work on the behalf of the Montana Innocence Project, and who spoke to Forensic Magazine.

Using the probabilistic genotyping tool TrueAllele—a big-data method of sorting out complex DNA mixtures—Hampikian determined that Jenkins and Lawrence were excluded from the mixture. But Nelson was a contributor—with the chance that Nelson was the source of the DNA about 10 septillion times more likely than it being provided by a randomly-selected person, Hampikian.

The DNA profile from the male was found on the part of the rope without bloodstains - and it made up 60 percent of the DNA material found on that part of the piece of evidence, according to Hampikian.

The CODIS profile was also independently derived by STR analysis at the Bode Cellmark laboratory, Hampikian added.

The CODIS hit is what led to Nelson.

Nelson, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to robbing and killing an elderly couple in a completely separate crime, took the stand briefly on the Meagher murder during a hearing last week. According to the Helena Independent Record, Nelson came into the courtroom in his prison jumpsuit and was read his rights by the judge. He asked to speak to a court-appointed lawyer. After a 15-minute recess, he reportedly exercised his right to remain silent—and was taken out of the courtroom, according to the local newspaper.

But shortly afterward, Nelson’s nephew testified Nelson had bragged about killing Meagher several times over the ensuing years, according to the account. (The nephew had also been convicted alongside Nelson in another unrelated 1998 home invasion robbery in which no one was killed, according to multiple accounts.)

A Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation agent also testified, saying he could find no connection between Nelson and Lawrence and Jenkins, the account adds.

Nelson’s wife Eileen Nelson also testified at the hearing that her husband’s DNA must have been left on the rope during a 1993 garage sale. Attorneys for Jenkins and Lawrence raised questions about the story, since recordings between the Nelsons were entered in the court record in which David Nelson told his wife the story was “indisputable” since it happened so many years earlier.

The DNA testing was performed under a Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has as its namesake the first death-row inmate to be exonerated by DNA, Hampikian told Forensic Magazine.

Toby Cook, of the Montana Innocence Project, told Forensic Magazine the group first began its review of the case in 2011. But it was only with the 2015 revision to the Montana state statute concerning post-conviction DNA review that they could make their case, he said.

"The judge ordered testing in September of 2016, but due to several delays only about five items were tested prior to the CODIS hit," said Cook. "Lawrence and Jenkins have been excluded from all evidence tested thus far."

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