On June 1, 2018, upon motion of the Lewis and Clark County special prosecutor, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ordered that the 1995 robbery, kidnapping, and homicide charges against Montana Innocence Project (MTIP) clients Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Jenkins be dismissed. The Order means that Lawrence and Jenkins, who had received life sentences, are exonerated of the offenses. These cases mark the fifth and sixth exonerations secured by the MTIP in the last two years.
MTIP began its investigation into the cases in 2012. In 2015, MTIP filed petitions for DNA testing of certain physical items of evidence. While the lab results were pending, MTIP discovered other new evidence of their clients’ innocence, including the admissions of another man, David Nelson.
In early 2018, the DNA results were received, and MTIP filed motions to overturn the convictions against Lawrence and Jenkins. Judge Seeley granted the motions in April 2018. The DNA results were “clearly favorable to Defendants Jenkins and Lawrence,” wrote Judge Seeley in her Order. “No DNA linked to Jenkins and Lawrence was found. The result…matches the DNA of David Nelson – a man known to have committed similar violent kidnappings, robberies, and, in Deer Lodge, homicides.”
Further, Judge Seeley noted that the DNA evidence and other evidence presented by MTIP “far exceeds the standard of a reasonable probability of a different outcome at trial.”
Judge Seeley then released Lawrence and Jenkins from the Montana State Prison, where they had spent the last 23 years.
On June 1st, 2018, the State of Montana decided it would not proceed against Lawrence and Jenkins and moved to dismiss the charges. Judge Seeley then signed the Order of Dismissal and the two men are now exonerated of all crimes.
MTIP staff attorney Toby Cook noted the power of scientific evidence. “The DNA evidence is overwhelming in this case, and we are very pleased with Judge Seeley's Order. Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Jenkins will never get back the 23 years they were in prison. However, in the last two months since their release from custody they have made great progress in adjusting back to society and we are confident they will go on to lead successful and productive lives."
MTIP Board of Directors President Ron Waterman echoed Cook’s feelings. “Our organization is dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted individuals like Fred and Paul,” Waterman said. “We are happy that the court has recognized the obvious injustice that occurred in this case. Justice is an evolving process, and part of our system of justice is correcting past mistakes. Judge Seeley’s Order is the result of the hard work of our staff and volunteers. In this case, not only did we coordinate the DNA testing that excluded our client, but we also identified the likely perpetrator of the crimes.”
Waterman noted that 2018 marks the tenth anniversary of MTIP. “We have gained the exonerations of six individuals who were wrongfully convicted of crimes,” he said. “Together they have served nearly 100 years in prison and now they have their freedom. That is what our organization is all about. We are committed to carry on our important work on behalf of all of our clients. We hope that the public continues to support our efforts through further volunteering and contributing to our programs.”
The newest exonerees expressed their appreciation. “I am very grateful for MTIP’s efforts on my behalf,” said Paul Jenkins. “They worked hard to get my freedom restored. They gave me back my life.”
“I have been waiting for this moment for many, many years,” said Freddie 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.”
The Montana Innocence Project is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to finding and freeing innocent people in Montana prisons. MTIP’s website is http://www.mtinnocenceproject.org