A state judge is scheduled to hear arguments Friday on whether to overturn convictions of two men in a 1994 murder.
Motions in the case say new DNA evidence links the murder of Donna Meagher to another man — David Wayne Nelson — who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to killing two people in Deer Lodge in October 2015.
Freddie Joe Lawrence, 56, and Paul Jenkins, 64, are serving life sentences for Meagher's kidnapping and killing as she was closing up a family-owned bar and casino in Montana City, south of Helena.
While the new information is a possible source of hope for Lawrence and Jenkins, it's painful for Meagher's family.
Her daughter, Michelle, said she felt the state had substantial evidence against Lawrence and Jenkins after she sat through the trial — with separate juries for each man — when she was 15.
"Independently, 24 people decided they were guilty," she said. "Many very intelligent and respected individuals" worked on the case, noting it was prosecuted by Mike McGrath, who is now the chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
"Our family is re-living the trauma from the crime and this is unexplainable to someone who has not gone through something of this magnitude," she said.
The family's pain is understandable, said Larry Mansch, legal director for the Montana Innocence Project.
"This is a terrible thing that happened to Donna," he said. "We are trying to figure out who the perpetrator was."
DNA tests on a rope found near where Meagher was killed west of Helena had both Meagher's blood and Nelson's DNA on it, court records said. Another unknown man's DNA was on the ligature found on Meagher's body, but no DNA from Lawrence or Jenkins was found.
"We think it's pretty compelling evidence," said Toby Cook, an attorney with the Montana Innocence Project, which has seen deliberate homicide convictions overturned in two other cases. "We also got the ID of at least one of the other perpetrators."
There's no evidence Nelson knew Lawrence and Jenkins, court records said.
Separately, the state re-opened its investigation into Meagher's murder after the former sister-in-law and nephew of David Nelson told law enforcement officers in March 2016 that Nelson confessed in 1998 to killing Meagher and provided details consistent with the crime. At the time, Nelson was facing deliberate homicide charges for the deaths of Greg Giannonatti and his mother, Beverly, in Deer Lodge.
The state attorney general's office, in opposing the motions, notes Nelson denies his family's claims and denies having anything to do with Meagher's death.
The only person who testified to witnessing the crime — Jenkins' wife Mary — did not mention Nelson being there, the Montana Innocence Project notes.
"The failure of witnesses to name the only participant linked by concrete physical evidence to the murder undermines the state's entire theory presented at trial," MIP argues.
Mary Jenkins' testimony had been inconsistent, Lawrence and Jenkins argued. She died of Alzheimer's disease five years after the trial.
Michelle Meagher said that after the trial, Paul Jenkins was charged with twice raping a 16-year-old girl the same month Donna Meagher was killed. He pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors did not pursue the case, Mansch said.
"Maybe these guys aren't as good as they're being portrayed," Meagher said.