- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Attorneys for the state have agreed to have DNA testing performed on several items of evidence recovered during the investigation of a 1994 homicide near Helena as two men convicted of the crime seek to prove their innocence.

Paul Kenneth Jenkins, 62, and Freddie Joe Lawrence, 54, are serving life in prison for kidnapping and killing Donna Meagher after robbing the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City, where she worked. Meagher’s body was found west of Helena.

A 2015 law allows people convicted of a felony to petition for DNA testing if the identity of the perpetrator was a significant issue in the case and they can argue the evidence might establish their innocence. Petitioners must also swear, under oath, that they are innocent of the crime.

The men’s attorneys argue most of the evidence in the murder case did not undergo DNA testing and could produce a genetic profile that doesn’t match either defendant, according to court documents.

Earlier this month, the state agreed to the testing of several items, including a ligature found on the victim, a rope, a hair in the rope, the victim’s fingernail scrapings and clippings and a cigarette butt found near the victim. However, state prosecutors argue there was no evidence of sexual assault in the case so other items, including a rape kit, should not be tested.

Both sides have until Aug. 26 to submit their arguments and proposed orders to District Judge Kathy Seeley.

Jenkins and Lawrence were convicted after a 1995 trial in which witnesses testified to seeing vehicles matching theirs near the saloon at the time of the murder and men they identified as Jenkins and Lawrence in the area where Meagher’s body was found in the days after the murder.

They argue there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime and prosecutors only had circumstantial evidence.

The state notes that Lawrence told investigators that Jenkins had a lot of money after the homicide and unusual keys, like those used to open a pop machine. The bar was robbed of about $3,300, with most of the money being taken from gambling machines that were opened with a similar key. Lawrence later recanted his statements.

Fellow jail inmates testified that Lawrence talked about the crime, including identifying a pry bar as the murder weapon - information that had not been released to the public.

Lawrence’s in-laws told investigators that they overheard him saying if the woman hadn’t lied about how much money she had, she would still be alive. His mother-in-law said Lawrence had talked about being kicked out of Jackson Creek Saloon and that the bar deserved to be robbed, followed by Jenkins saying that could be arranged.

Lawrence argues that his in-laws aren’t reliable because his father-in-law was mentally ill and only implicated him in an effort to collect a reward for information about the crime.

Jenkins had tried to prevent his wife from testifying that she was there when Jenkins and Lawrence robbed the bar and kidnapped Meagher, arguing she was mentally impaired. Mary Jenkins died of Alzheimer’s disease about five years after the trial, court records said.

Prosecutors also note that Jenkins said he didn’t know where Montana City was, but that a store owner and another bar employee reported having seen him at both establishments.

Both men appealed their convictions to the Montana Supreme Court, but they were upheld.

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