HELENA — A Montana judge on Friday dismissed deliberate homicide charges against two men after earlier vacating their convictions because DNA evidence from the January 1994 crime scene matched another man serving a life sentence for a 2015 double homicide.
District Judge Kathy Seeley's order does allow the state to re-file charges against Freddie Joe Lawrence, 56, and Paul Jenkins, 64, if prosecutors believe the evidence warrants.
"A dismissal is a dismissal," Larry Mansch, legal director for the Montana Innocence Project, said Friday. "There's really no likelihood of re-charging our guys."
The state is investigating David Wayne Nelson as a suspect in the death of Donna Meagher, the attorney general's office has said. Meagher was kidnapped as she was closing up a family-owned bar and casino in Montana City south of Helena and was killed west of Helena.
Lawrence and Jenkins were convicted in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison.
During a March 9 hearing, the Montana Innocence Project presented the results of new DNA testing showing that a rope found near the crime scene had Meagher's blood on it along with Nelson's DNA.
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Seeley also heard from Fred Nelson, who testified his uncle David Nelson had taken him to the spot where Meagher was killed and "thought it was cool" that he got away with it and two other men were convicted.
Seeley vacated the murder convictions on April 13 and ordered new trials. The men were released from prison after serving more than 23 years. The state had until June 5 to decide if it would re-file the charges.
The Attorney General's office moved Friday to dismiss the charges of robbery, kidnapping and deliberate homicide without prejudice, meaning they could be re-filed. Seeley granted the motion.
"The DNA evidence is overwhelming in this case and we are very pleased with Judge Seeley's order," Montana Innocence Project staff attorney Toby Cook said in a statement. "Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Jenkins will never get back the 23 years they were in prison. However, in the last month since their release from custody they have made great progress adjusting back to society, and we are confident they will go on to lead successful and productive lives."
Nelson pleaded guilty to killing Greg Giannonatti, 57, and his mother Beverly Giannonatti, 79, in Deer Lodge in October 2015 during a confrontation over the theft of 1,700 ounces of silver that he sold for $26,000.