23 years innocent in prison – millions in compensation

In 1995 there was a horrific casino murder in America in which 34-year-old Donna Meagher was killed. For a short time, the authorities were happy about the success of the investigation: two suspects were caught and sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime. Now, after 23 years in prison, the two men have been acquitted again. They will receive a total of $ 12 million in compensation.

innocent in prison

The innocent convicted men are Paul Jenkins (66) and Joe Lawrence (58). About a quarter of a century ago they were found guilty of the murder of 34-year-old Donna Meagher by a US court. A fatal mistake, as it turned out in the meantime. The course of events has not yet been clarified. In any case, the two men, who were innocent in prison for about 23 years, are no longer eligible for the death of the young mother.

The 1995 casino murder – a reconstruction

It was a dreary day in January 1995 when the 34-year-old victim finished work at around 9 p.m. in the Jackson Creek Salon in Montana City. Normally she should have locked the place, which is a private casino with an integrated bar and restaurant, and arrived home a little later. However, the young mother never got there. The private casino belonged to the victim’s brother.

The next morning, the victim’s family became worried and drove to the casino. Once there, the relatives found that the front door had been opened and the slot machines in the store had been broken into. The money from the machine wasn’t there either. However, there was still no trace of the 34-year-old victim.

Several hours later, Donna Meagher was found dead in a nearby ditch. The body was handcuffed and numerous injuries were found on the body. Over a period of several months there were no significant successes to report. But then for the first time Paul Jenkins (66) and Joe Lawrence (58) were targeted by the investigators.

Life imprisonment with no prospect of parole – even though they are innocent

At that time, Lawrence’s father, partner, gave the police a tip. Obviously, he was particularly interested in the reward offered for catching the murderer. But now it’s getting bizarre: The court based the conviction largely on the testimony of a mentally limited witness whose IQ is around 50. The latter stated that he wanted to have seen Lawrence’s car in front of the casino during the period of the crime.

The other suspect, Paul Jenkins, was also charged by a close family member. The “problem” here: The wife of Jenkins, who accused him, was probably seriously ill with dementia. There was no further material evidence. Still, about 23 years ago, a US court sentenced the two men to life imprisonment with no prospect of parole. In Germany, such a judgment would be and is absolutely unthinkable due to the current situation.

New DNA technology relieves the two men

Thanks to state-of-the-art DNA technology, it was already possible in 2015 to evaluate existing DNA traces from the previous case in more detail. The rope with which the victim was apparently tied was examined. The evaluation showed that neither Jenkins nor Lawrence’s DNA traces could be found on the rope. For this reason, the two men were released after more than 23 years in prison and compensated accordingly in a trial.

$ 6 million each innocent in prison for 23 years

The two men will now each receive $ 6 million in compensation for the many years they spent innocently in prison. The money is paid out by insurance companies in the US state of Montana. It is questionable whether all this money can be an effective consolation for the lost life in prison. The two men are now 58 and 66 years old, respectively, and have spent a large part of their lives in prison. The two former suspects have been able to enjoy their freedom again since April 2018.

There is one more positive news, however: the analysis of the DNA traces from the rope has led investigators to another suspect. It is 58-year-old David Wayne Nelson, who was convicted of two murders in Montana in 2015. With this, the gruesome casino murder of Donna Meagher could still be solved more than two decades after the fact.


The 1995 casino murder clearly shows that there are obviously people who have been innocently imprisoned for more than two decades. And that, although the evidence was more than thin from the start. In addition to a wife with dementia, there was only one witness with impaired intelligence (IQ: approx. 50) who suspected the innocent men. After more than 23 years in prison, even a compensation payment of six million euros each does not seem really “fair”. After all, one cannot buy back the lost lifetime even with the millions.

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