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In this March 9, 2018 file photo, Paul Jenkins listens to testimony 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. A Montana judge has vacated the deliberate homicide conviction of Jenkins and another man in the 1995 death of the Helena woman and ordered new trials. (Photo: Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

Two prisoners who were serving life sentences for a 1995 robbery and homicide were cleared of their murder convictions today, according to the Montana Innocence Project.

Paul Kenneth Jenkins and Fred Joe Lawrence have been behind bars for 23 years for the killing of Donna Meagher, a bartender of the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City.

The bloody rope used to bind Meagher was the focus of the latest DNA testing. The genetic mixture contained the victim’s profile.

The other profile included was a man’s. It was identified through a database hit as belonging to David Wayne Nelson, a man who has since been convicted of a separate double homicide, according to Greg Hampikian, a DNA expert at Boise State University, and founder of the Idaho Innocence Project.

“The DNA corroborates the witnesses’ testimony that now clearly points to David Nelson,” said Hampikian, in a statement released today. “We worked with the Montana Innocence Project on this case for five years. They left no stone unturned, and found the evidence that tells the whole story.”

Hampikian’s analysis utilized the probabilistic genotyping software TrueAllele, which sorts out complex mixtures. The male DNA on the part of the rope without bloodstains made up 60 percent of the DNA. The profile was independently derived by STR analysis through processing at a Bode Cellmark laboratory.

The resulting CODIS hit pointed to Nelson, they concluded.

The Montana judge agreed with the Montana Innocence Project work.

“No DNA linked to Jenkins and Lawrence was found,” ruled Judge Kathy Seeley, sitting in Helena. “The result … matches the DNA of David Nelson—a man known to have committed similar violent kidnappings, robberies, and, in Deer Lodge, homicides.”

The state of Montana has to decide whether to re-try Jenkins and Lawrence—or put Nelson on trial.

In this March 9, 2018 file photo, Freddie Joe Lawrence listens to testimony in Helena, Mont., during a hearing to review new DNA evidence related to the murder of Donna Meagher, which Lawrence was convicted of in 1995. A Montana judge has vacated the deliberate homicide conviction of Lawrence and another man in the 1995 death of the Helena woman and ordered new trials. (Photo: Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

Lawrence, after 23 years in prison, said freedom had given him a sense of relief.

“I have been waiting for this moment for many, many years,” said Lawrence. “I am very grateful for the amazing and dedicated work of the Montana Innocence Project. Their lawyers, experts, and investigators worked tirelessly on my behalf. Thank God for the Innocence Project.”

The DNA mixture analysis at Hampikian’s Boise State laboratory was funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant under the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program.

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