Ravalli County Commissioners agreed to participate in a $6 million settlement agreement ending a lawsuit filed over wrongful conviction. The lawsuit, filed by Paul Jenkins, Kenneth Jenkins and Crystal Combs, stemmed from Paul Jenkins serving over 23 years in prison for the murder of a woman in 1994 that he did not commit. Although the charges mainly involve the sheriffs and some deputies from Jefferson County, where the abduction took place, and Lewis and Clark County, where the body was found, the lawsuit did allege that at one point Ravalli County officers may have played a role back in 1999 in continuing the unjust incarceration by either failing to relay information that could have led to the men’s release, or for failing to follow up when that information was not used by the investigating officers in those other counties.
The victim in the murder case, Donna Meagher, was abducted from a saloon outside of Helena in 1994 during a robbery and her body was found in an adjoining county. She had been brutally beaten to death with a claw hammer. Jenkins and a friend named Fred Lawrence were arrested and convicted of the crime in 1995. No physical evidence linking them to the crime was submitted at trial. They claim in the lawsuit that evidence in the case was fabricated, that some testimony against them was coerced, and that exculpatory evidence was hidden and that this was done with explicit consent and often with explicit instructions from the Jefferson and Lake County Sheriffs.
Then in 1999, four years after their convictions, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office had an opportunity, according to the lawsuit, to right a wrong and mitigate the damage caused by the wrongful conviction, when Fred Nelson, the nephew of the true perpetrator David Nelson, told them about his uncle’s detailed confession to Meagher’s murder, which included non-public and accurate details about the crime. Fred Nelson even told the officers how his uncle David Nelson had said “two mentally challenged kids took the rap” for his crime. David Nelson had no relationship to Fred Lawrence or Paul Jenkins, and never spoke to either of them or their lawyers.
The lawsuit claims that Ravalli County detectives failed to pass along Fred Nelson’s account or photos taken of David Nelson’s car, which had been used in the murder, to any state or local agencies with authority over the Meagher investigation, and Lawrence and Paul Jenkins remained wrongfully imprisoned.
“In the alternative,” they argue, “if the Ravalli County officers did relay this information to the Montana Criminal Investigation Bureau, the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Department, or any of the other Defendants, officers or agencies involved in the investigation of Meagher’s homicide, those Defendants failed to take any action to disclose this plainly exculpatory information to Lawrence, his defense attorney, the prosecution, or the Court.”
It is claimed that Ravalli County officers took no action in furthering investigation of David Nelson until 18 years later, in 2016, when Fred Nelson reiterated his previous statements about his uncle’s involvement in the Meagher murder to officers from the Dillon Police Department, who finally alerted Montana Department of Justice, Department of Criminal Investigation agents, resulting in a reinvestigation of the homicide 22 years after the fact.
DNA evidence was subsequently obtained from a piece of rope found at the crime scene that definitively linked David Nelson to the murder and absolving Jenkins and Lawrence.
David Nelson is currently serving a life sentence in Montana State Prison after pleading guilty to the 2015 homicides of Greg and Beverley Giannotti. Greg Giannotti died after Nelson repeatedly struck him with a hammer, the same way he killed Meagher.
The wrongful conviction of Jenkins and Lawrence were vacated on April 13, 2018. They were released from prison a few days later.
At the Commission meeting where the settlement agreement was approved, Commissioner Jeff Burrows stated, “I don’t know how we got a case Jenkins v. Ravalli County given the almost zero part that Ravalli County played in this suit. We definitely weren’t a major part of it and maybe not even a minor part in it. I think you could argue that we really had no liability in this case. This is one of those in which MACo [Montana Association of Counties], the insurer, decided to make a universal settlement with all parties and we were kind of forced into a corner as being part of the settlement.”
“I think it’s unfair the way it was settled in this case,” Burrows continued. “I think we should have been removed from this settlement completely. But it is what it is and MACo kind of drives the bus on these settlements.”
Commissioner Chairman Hoffman said simply, “I concur.”