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December 6, 2018

Loquitur // Winter 2019

How a VLS graduate helped free an innocent man

It was after midnight on January 12, 1994, and Donna Meagher, a 34-yer-old waitress, was closing up after a long night at Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City, Mont. This was a familiar routine for her. Meagher was eager to get home to her two sleeping children.

Without warning, this cold winter morning became anything but routine. Sometime between 12:45 and 1:36 a.m., someone entered the saloon and ordered Meagher to hand over cash. Terrified, she emptied $3,300 from the register and gambling machines. She never came home.

The next morning, family members went to the saloon and were concerned by what they found. The door was unlocked and Meagher’s pickup truck, which was normally in the saloon parking lot, was found behind a nearby restaurant. The keys were in the ignition.

At 9:29.6 a.m., two women driving on Highway 12 spotted an injured deer alongside the road. When they stopped to check on it, they were horrified to discover a woman’s lifeless body lying in a ditch. Donna Meagher had been bound with a cord and struck in the head 10 to 12 times with the claw end of a hammer.

News of the murder dominated headlines in Montana for weeks. But law enforcement was coming up cold in the search for the killer. Investigators caught a break that summer when a man named Dan Knipschield, who was in jail, told them that he believed his son-in-law, Fred Lawrence, was involved in the Meagher murder. Knipschield, who was hoping to claim a Crime Stoppers reward, agreed to wear a wire and discuss the crime with Lawrence. The tape allegedly malfunctioned, but Knipschield insisted that Lawrence confessed to the murder. Police interviewed Lawrence, who was just out of jail for a traffic violation in West Yellowstone, Mont. Lawrence denied involvement and blamed the crime on his friend, Paul Jenkins, and Jimmie Lee Amos, an intellectually disabled man in the care of Jenkins and his wife Mary, who had dementia.

Paul Jenkins Trial, 1995
In 1995, Paul Jenkins (middle) at The Lewis & Clark District Court in Helena, Montana., was charged and sentenced to 100 years in prison. Still shot from video footage courtesy of Jill Valley/KPAX News.

Montana investigators traveled to Oklahoma and interviewed Paul and Mary Jenkins. Mary’s interview lasted eight hours, during which she allegedly told police that she saw Lawrence murder Donna Meagher. The detectives claimed they had recorded the interview with Mary Jenkins and mailed the tape and transcript back to their office. The transcript arrived, but the tape had mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence later recanted his claim that Jenkins had committed the murder.

In the fall of 1994, Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence were charged with deliberate homicide, aggravated kidnapping, and robbery. In January 1995, a state forensic psychiatrist determined that Mary Jenkins and Jimmie Lee Amos were both incompetent. But the prosecutor argued that without Mary Jenkins’ testimony, “We do not have a case. We are not able to proceed.”

The court ruled that Amos was incompetent, but that Mary Jenkins’ “confession” was admissible. With no physical evidence linking Jenkins or Lawrence to the crime, Mary’s testimony against her husband was central to the prosecution’s thin case. On Feb. 24, 1995, separate juries that heard the cases at the same time convicted Lawrence and Jenkins of murder. Both men were sentenced to 100 years in prison. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the convictions two years later.

For 23 years, Lawrence and Jenkins remained in prison. They have always maintained their innocence. They would likely still be in prison today were it not for the efforts of a handful of lawyers on a mission. One of them was a fellow Montanan just back from Vermont who dreamed of saving the earth, but ended up saving a life.

From Yellowstone to Vermont

Thad Adkins JD’08.6 grew up in Gardiner, Mont., the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. He was one of 18 members of the graduating class of 1997 at his local high school. His father worked for a concessionaire for the National Park Service and his mom was an artist. He attended Carroll College in Helena, then transferred in his senior year and graduated from the University of Tennessee.

Growing up in one of the country’s most spectacular landscapes, Adkins has a deep connection to the environment. Since he was 13, he worked as a hunting and fishing guide for his uncle’s outfitting business, guiding fishing trips, elk hunts, trail rides, wrangling horses, fixing fences, and whatever else was needed. These experiences shaped him. “A previous generation had World War II, but for me climate change and the environment are the big issues of our day. That got me motivated,” he says.

Shortly after he graduated college, one of his Montana neighbors offered Adkins some advice. “If you really want to make a difference for the environment, you need a law degree.”

“That really resonated with me,” Adkins recalls. He heard that Vermont Law School had a renowned environmental law program. It was the only law school to which he applied.

When Adkins enrolled at VLS in 2006, he was finally able to engage his passion for working on environmental issues. “In Montana, a good portion of your time is spent debating whether there is a warming climate. At VLS, your time is spent figuring out what to do about it, not arguing what’s fact and what’s not. It’s a solutions-oriented place.”

After graduating from VLS in 2009, Adkins, then 30 years old with a wife and a young son, wanted to move back to Montana and practice environmental law. Instead, he was offered a job at the Office of Public Defender in Helena, the state capital. Adkins was eager to take the job, but he had never even taken a class in criminal procedure. He decided he could learn on the job.

Adkins was soon working 300 active cases. “It was very fast-paced and everybody was really overloaded,” he concedes. The Montana ACLUsued over inadequate funding of the Office of Public Defender, but the caseloads remained overwhelming. After several years, Adkins accepted a job offer at a prominent Helena law firm, Jackson, Murdo & Grant PC. The firm needed an attorney with experience in criminal law, and Adkins was now a veteran.

Police Investigation, Paul Jenkins Exoneration
Police investigate the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City, Montana the scene of the 1994 crime that landed Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence in prison. Still shots from video footage courtesy of Jill Valley/KPAX News.

One day in 2011, Adkins was contacted by a friend who was a staff attorney with the Montana Innocence Project (MTIP), a branch of the national nonprofit legal group whose “mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.” Thanks in part to the work of the Innocence Project, 362 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing as of late 2018, including 20 who served time on death row.

His friend at the MTIP inquired: Would Adkins consider taking on the pro bono legal appeal of Paul Jenkins? Adkins was “pretty skeptical,” but agreed to take a look.

MTIP staff attorney Toby Cook explains, “Our threshold requirement is that we have to have new evidence of innocence or determine if it is a DNA case. Since there was no physical evidence linking Jenkins and Lawrence to the crime and almost all the evidence was circumstantial, we thought this was a good case for new DNA testing.”

Adkins grew concerned as he read the case file. “The more I went through transcripts of the original trial, the clearer it became that some catastrophic mistakes were made. The lack of physical evidence was one of the main problems. I began to believe my client.

The Meagher murder was a high-profile case in Montana, which has a relatively low number of violent crimes. When Dan Knipschield offered up his son-in-law Fred Lawrence as a perpetrator, Montana law enforcement were eager to believe him. Adkins quickly recognized the social context of the case. “Fred Lawrence, who lived in a trailer park and had a history of low-level misdemeanor troubles, didn’t have a lot going for him. Paul Jenkins had just moved here and had no support network. That’s a warning sign. If the prosecutor and detectives are really under pressure to make a case, there’s nobody advocating for these guys.”

Paul Jenkins thought the police’s interest in him was a misunderstanding that would just go away. The problem came when they interviewed his wife Mary, who was in the early stages of dementia (she would die of Alzheimer’s Disease five years later). “She would walk out of a store and not know where she parked her car. She was starting to have fairly significant cognitive impairment,” says Adkins. Her confused mental status would have been apparent during her interview with detectives.

“The first detail that intrigued me was that the detectives ended up mailing the interview transcript and tape to their office in Helena,” says Adkins. “Why didn’t they bring it physically in their custody? That was an odd thing.” Sure enough, a package arrived at the detective’s office with the transcript, but the tape was missing.

"I’ve dealt with a lot of police officers and they are mostly standup guys, but there were always some who bent things. It seemed obvious that they had leaned on her in the interview—and then the tape goes missing,” says Adkins. Paul Jenkins said that “they were telling her that she was either going to be named as a defendant, lose her kids and go to prison, or she could testify against Paul. She ultimately testified that she and Jimbo, the developmentally disabled guy, had both been involved.”

Too many facts didn’t make sense to Adkins. Mary claimed that Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence robbed the saloon and that Lawrence had beaten the victim unconscious and loaded her into a pickup truck. But there was no blood at the saloon, the description of the vehicles and the timeframe didn’t match up, there were the wrong size shoe prints, and witnesses identified different cars.

“I could see how they got convicted, because the wife is saying this happened and we were there and participated, and the father-in-law had a story. But there was absolutely no physical evidence linking them to the crime scene,” Adkins observes. “It definitely was a symptom of law enforcement needing to get a handle on this case.”

“This case floated a lot of boats,” Adkins says of the original investigation and trial. The prosecutor went on to be elected Montana Attorney General and then chiefjustice of the Montana Supreme Court. One of the investigators became county sheriff. And the defense attorney became head of the Office of Public Defender when Adkins worked there.

A Case Becomes a Mission

Thad Adkins became convinced that Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence were innocent. “Just the thought that these guys were in prison for so long for something they didn’t do was horrifying and mind-boggling. I can’t think of any case as an attorney that has kept me up as long.”

In August 2014.6, Adkins and lawyers for the Montana Innocence Project filed a motion seeking new DNA testing of the physical evidence in the Meagher murder case. Among the 20 items sought were a rope used to bind Meagher and a cigarette butt found near her body. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley granted the motion one year later. Meanwhile, Adkins had changed jobs. In 2012, he left the private law firm to become an attorney with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. This new job introduced a wrinkle: by day, he was a state environmental attorney. In his pro bono work, he was challenging other state attorneys who worked for the AG.

Paul Jenkins Exoneration
Paul Jenkins, on trail in 1994 in Helena, Montana. Still shot from video footage courtesy of Jill Valley/KPAX News.

Was that awkward? He laughs: “A little bit. I had to keep a low profile. Because I was doing environmental law, everybody was OK with me continuing [the Jenkins case], but I couldn’t neglect my day job and had to use vacation time to work on it.”

In March 2016.6, there was a crucial development in the case. Fred Nelson reported to Montana law enforcement that his uncle, David Wayne Nelson, who was then in prison after confessing to a 2015 double homicide, had bragged that he killed Donna Meagher in 1994.

Fred Nelson had previously reported his uncle’s admission to lawyers and police in 1998 and 2011. But he was told that nothing could be done because there was no new evidence. Adkins says it was unclear whether the police or sheriffs suppressed or just ignored the damning information. “The general sense was, ‘We’ve got the right guys in prison so there’s no point in reopening it.’”

Fred Nelson’s 2016.6 statement, combined with the fact that DNA testing was underway, caused the state to reopen the investigation into the Meagher murder. Adkins and his Innocence Project colleagues believed that if Nelson’s DNA turned up on any of the evidence, it would be “a slam dunk” that Nelson had committed the crime, and Jenkins and Lawrence were innocent.

The drama quickened in late 2017. Thad Adkins was sitting at his desk one evening when he opened an email from Cellmark, a DNA Lab. “Lo and behold, one of the ligatures–a nylon rope to tie up the victim–had DNA that was a match to David Nelson,” he recounts. “I was absolutely floored.”

The attorneys still had to persuade a judge of the significance of the DNA finding. In January 2018, the MTIP team filed a motion to vacate the murder convictions of Jenkins and Lawrence under Montana’s DNA Exoneration Statute, which MTIP helped get passed in 2015.

The hearing to consider the new evidence took place on March 9, 2018, in Helena. DNA expert Dr. Greg Hampikian from Boise State University, who was also working with the Innocence Project, took the stand first, and told Judge Kathy Seeley, “There’s no DNA link whatsoever to Lawrence and Jenkins in this case.”


“I do a lot of cases,” said Hampikian. “This is the second time I can remember in one of my cases where it cleared two men and someone else is a hit to the database.” In a surprise move, the MTIP team called David Nelson to the stand. He appeared in shackles and exercised his right to remain silent.

The lawyers then called Fred Nelson as a witness. He described his uncle’s boasting to him about committing murders in five states, including killing Donna Meagher in 1994: “He abducted her, robbed the casino, took her to a road outside of Helena, said he was going to let her go, got out of the car. She said it was cold out. He walked her to the back of the car and said, ‘I have a sweater in the trunk of the car.’ He opened the trunk and he said he pulled out a hammer and hit her in the head with a hammer. He said that two guys got convicted and went to prison for it and he got away with it.”

MTIP staff attorney Toby Cook recounts, “When the nephew was describing the confession, you could hear a pin drop in the court. That was a moment of high drama. That was right after our DNA expert had testified that Nelson’s DNA was on the rope mixed with the victim’s DNA. The statistical probability on that was 1 in 10 septillion.”

Cook praised Adkins’ work on the case. “Thad is a very critical thinker. He was instrumental in his ability to think through all of the evidence and the issues and what it meant. He had great ideas about different topics we should question each witness on. His experience as a public defender also helped him as far as thinking on his feet.”

On April 12.6, 2018, Judge Seely overturned the murder and kidnapping convictions of Jenkins and Lawrence and ordered a new trial. The judge said the new evidence “far exceeds” the standard required to prove the likelihood of a different outcome had it been presented in the original trial. Four days later, Lawrence and Jenkins were released from prison. On June 1, 2018, the state dismissed the charges.

Twenty-three years after they were wrongfully convicted, Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence were free men. “I never thought one time I’d see this day,” Jenkins told KPAX TV in an emotional interview the day after his release. He advised others in his situation, “Don’t give up. Don’t give up no matter what you do. Just keep going.”

“A Case You Dream Of”

Thad Adkins says that when he was a law student in Vermont, “this is the kind of case you dream of. It was really satisfying to feel like you were able to make a pretty big difference. ...We set some legal precedents and it makes it a little easier within the state to bring a case like this. I am thrilled with how it turned out.”

MTIP staff attorney Toby Cook observes, “I think this case was significant for several reasons. It shows how horribly wrong a case can go and the detrimental impact that a wrongful conviction can have not just for victims, but for society as a whole. Jenkins and Lawrence spent 23 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit—that’s a tragedy. But those two people in Deer Lodge [murdered by David Wayne Nelson in 2015] lost their lives because the right person was not convicted in 1994.”

In September 2017.6, Adkins started a new position as senior counsel for the Natural Resource Damage Program in the office of the Montana Attorney General. He now works alongside the attorneys he recently opposed. Adkins chuckles softly in reflecting on his career path, “I would be making a helluva lot more money if I had stayed at the law firm I was with. But that was not my motivation for going to law school.”

“The law is a human system. There is a huge danger of confirmation bias, because this is an adversarial system where an investigative team reaches a conclusion, then you switch into defense mode. It can be difficult to defend a case with an open mind. It drove home to me the importance of a defense counsel who is on the ball.”

Adkins says it is easy for a criminal defense attorney to get jaded. “But we are the last line of defense. We need to take it seriously and listen to our clients.”

Adkins now looks forward to spending more time with his wife and two young kids and getting back to the magnificent Montana outdoors that first inspired him to study law.

Less than a decade after leaving his last law class in Vermont, Thad Adkins has had the privilege to use his skills to help exonerate an innocent man. The experience has renewed his faith in the law, and in humanity.

“For every gross injustice carried out,” he muses, “there are still these instances of people working really hard to make a difference and make sure the right outcome is achieved.”

David Goodman is a Vermont journalist, a bestselling author, and host of the public affairs radio show, The Vermont Conversation.