Freddie Joe Lawrence said he harbors no anger toward those who put him in prison for 23 years for a crime he's always maintained he didn't commit.
Lawrence, 56, and another man, Paul Jenkins, 64, were released this week after Lewis and Clark County District Judge Kathy Seeley overturned their convictions in the 1994 death of Donna Meagher.
But just because he's not bitter doesn't mean Lawrence didn't suffer.
“My wife died since I was in prison, my mom died since I was in prison, both my daughters were adopted out and I lost my parental rights while I was in prison,” he said during a press conference in Missoula on Thursday. “I have no idea where my daughters are. If anybody can help me find them I’d appreciate that.”
Lawrence and Jenkins both received life sentences in 1995 after being convicted of robbery, kidnapping and homicide in the death of Meagher, who was killed west of Helena.
The nonprofit Montana Innocence Project undertook their case seven years ago to prove that someone else committed the crime. Seeley overturned their convictions last week because new DNA evidence on a rope found at the crime scene matched David Wayne Nelson, a man who is serving life in prison for killing two people in Deer Lodge in 2015.
Prosecutors have not said whether they will retry Lawrence and Jenkins following Seeley's ruling and no charges have been filed against Nelson.
Jenkins, who has lost both his feet and is wheelchair-bound, did not speak at a press conference held Thursday at the Montana Innocence Project’s office on the University of Montana campus. But Lawrence, who plans on settling in Missoula, spoke candidly, and said that the people of Montana have helped him in “tremendous ways.”
“I can’t even express the way I feel now,” he said. “People in Montana have been real friendly to us and helped us out a lot. We really appreciate that. I’m overwhelmed, I guess.”
And, he said, “I have no anger in me whatsoever. Because I understand the way they feel. If somebody’d killed my daughter, I’d have done the same thing. As far as what’s-his-name, Nelson, what’s done is done. There’s nothing you can do about the past.”
He refused to point fingers at anyone, including the lead prosecutor on the case that convicted him, Mike McGrath, now the chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
“I hate to cast aspersions, but the law enforcement officials back then were a lot different than they are today, I’ll just leave it at that,” Lawrence said.
The adjustment of living life on the outside has been a struggle, he admitted, but he was cheerful as he described the moment he realized he was going to walk free.
“Well, that’s hard to explain,” he said, pausing. “Joy. I was scared to come out because I’d been in there for 24 years. I was happy to get out, don’t get me wrong, but it was a big adjustment. The clothes the prison give me kind of freaked me out. I looked like LL Cool J. I didn’t quite know how to deal with that.”
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He said he’s still learning how to operate his new cellphone and deal with all the new technology.
“I got in a car yesterday and didn’t have my seat belt on and things started beeping,” he said, grinning, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “I thought there was a bomb in the car or something. Things have changed a lot.”
Larry Mansch, the legal director for the Montana Innocence Project, said the work of attorneys Toby Cook, Thad Adkins and Larry Jent, along with investigators Michael Wark and Spencer Veysey, who died in 2015, were critical to the case, as were the countless hours put in by student volunteers. He also commended Dr. Greg Hampikian of Boise State University’s Innocence Project, who provided critical testimony and analysis on the DNA evidence.
"Today’s an especially happy day,” Mansch said. “This case for us started about seven years ago, as all cases do. We get letters of inquiry from some inmate somewhere asking if we can help. And we try to help and we investigate.
"Thanks to our volunteers and our students and our staff and our investigators, we dig deep into those cases and in this particular case it broke for us. We found compelling evidence of innocence.”
Jent, who has served as a state legislator, was the author of the statute that allowed for DNA testing.
“I was proud to work on the law that provides for critical DNA testing in cases like this,” Jent said. “This is one of the most gratifying results in my entire legal career. This is why you go to law school. I am humbled and honored to be one of Fred Lawrence’s lawyers, and to be part of such a great team of lawyers and volunteers seeking justice. Judge Seeley’s ruling corrects a terrible injustice.”
Cook and Jent both said that the evidence that convicted Lawrence and Jenkins was entirely circumstantial.
“The DNA evidence is overwhelming in this case, and we are very pleased with Judge Seeley's Order,” Cook said. “However, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Jenkins will never get back the 23 [sic] years they were in prison."
Cook also said that DNA is a hugely powerful tool, but not every case where an innocent person has been wrongfully convicted involves DNA evidence.
“Only about a quarter of exonerations are DNA exonerations,” he said. “Some innocence projects only take DNA cases, but Montana Innocence Project will take any case. We take them one case at a time.”
Lawrence said he learned about the Montana Innocence Project from a friend in prison and reached out asking for help.
“I’m really glad they did,” he said. “I figured we’d spend the rest of our lives there. Anybody out there, send donations to the Innocence Project. Help other inmates like us get out of prison.”