The murder charge which led to Donald “Doc” Nash spending 12 years behind bars was dismissed Friday. The development ends years of habeas corpus litigation by Nash to claim his innocence and by consequence designates Judy Spencer’s 1982 murder as once again unsolved.
In a Friday press release announcing the dismissal, Dent County Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Curley writes revised expert opinions and new case evidence creates a reasonable doubt of Nash’s guilt. Specifically, new DNA testing standards in Missouri would not allow evidence heard in 2009 to be used in court today. Nash has also been excluded from matching two newly found male DNA profiles recovered from a shoelace used to strangle Spencer in 1982.
“This case is now over,” Nash’s attorney Charles A. Weiss said of the habeas corpus case. Nash’s attorney Jonathon Potts added dropping the charge is an ethical requirement of the state given the lack of evidence against Nash.
“Doc Nash is an innocent man who spent 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit,” Weiss said. “This case illustrates that our system is not perfect and administered by humans who make mistakes, and there were a lot of mistakes made in this case.”
Curley’s Friday press release states, in full:
"On March 11, 1982, Judy Spencer was found dead in Dent County. An initial police investigation determined she had been strangled with her shoelace, then shot in the neck by a shotgun, postmortem. The case remained unsolved for 25 years until 2007. Investigators collected a DNA sample from Donald Nash to compare with the DNA evidence found on the fingernail clippings taken from Spencer’s body in 1982 due to the advancements in DNA testing. The Missouri Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory analyzed the fingernail clippings and confirmed the presence of Donald Nash’s DNA and DNA belonging to the victim. No other DNA was located under the fingernails. There was also a small amount of DNA evidence located on the victim’s shoe. The DNA on the shoe remains unidentified but was confirmed to belong to a male. Following the DNA analysis and with much attention given to the DNA under the fingernails in the Probable Cause Statement, the Defendant was charged with capital murder in 2008 by then Prosecutor Jessica Sparks. Sparks later withdrew from the case, and a trial was conducted in 2009 with the state being represented by the Attorney General’s Office and the Defendant by private counsel. As a result of the trial, the jury convicted the Defendant of murder. The conviction was originally affirmed by the Missouri Supreme Court, who later appointed a special master to hear evidence for habeas relief requested by the defendant.
"At the 2009 trial, there was evidence the victim was observed washing her hair the day of her death. The Missouri State Highway Patrol DNA laboratory criminologist testified at trial regarding the results of the DNA analysis. The expert testified that DNA from the victim and Donald Nash was present under the victim’s fingernails. The expert further testified that (s)he “expected that washing your hair…would remove DNA from underneath the fingernails.” The expert further indicated the act of hair washing would have a “great effect” to the amount of DNA (2.25 nanograms) present under the victim’s fingernails. The Defendant argued at trial his DNA was found under the victim’s fingernails due to casual contact from their ongoing relationship. Essentially, the expert testified there was a large volume of the defendant’s DNA under the victim’s fingernails. This testimony, among other facts, created an inference the DNA of Nash ended up under the victim’s fingernails during the struggle preceding her death.
"In June of this year, the Special Master heard evidence about the case and recommended the Supreme Court to vacate the conviction rendered by the jury in 2009 due in part to a change in DNA expert testimony. During the hearings the DNA expert testified that “I have revised my opinion regarding the effect of hair washing from the original adjective of “great effect” to “some effect”. The expert was unable to quantify the “some effect” opinion other than to say it’s more than no effect. On July 3, 2020 the Missouri Supreme Court vacated the sentence and remanded the case back to the trial court due, in part, to this change in testimony.
"Prosecutor Curley inherited the case and with assistance from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office began reviewing the case and discovered the bulk of the physical evidence remained in the custody of the Missouri Highway Patrol. All evidence was resubmitted for DNA re-testing in anticipation of the upcoming trial. Additional DNA testing was performed by the State due to the advancements in DNA technology and to be thorough. The MSHP DNA expert reviewed their previous findings and trial testimony. The expert indicated due to an increase in testing standards now implemented by MSHP laboratory they could no longer testify, as they did in 2009, that it was Donald Nash’s DNA that was located under the victim’s fingernails. The fingernails were also re-tested and found to be degraded to a point that no DNA analysis could be performed. Most importantly, DNA analysis was recently conducted on the shoestring used to strangle the victim. DNA was identified from 2 male contributors. Donald Nash was excluded as a contributor to the male DNA located on the shoestring used to strangle the victim. As a result of the change in testimony from the DNA analyst and the existence of genetic material from 2 unknown males on the shoestring, the case against Donald Nash will be dismissed by the state. In addition, at least three of the witnesses who testified at the previous trial are now deceased.
"According to Prosecutor Curley, 'The criminal justice system utilizes the stringent standard of proving a defendant guilty by beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard is meant to protect an innocent person from being convicted. I was not the Prosecutor in 2009, but I am the prosecutor that inherited this case in 2020. I have reviewed the original preliminary hearing, trial transcript, appellate transcripts, and newly discovered DNA evidence. The DNA expert previously testified in the preliminary hearing and at trial that the frequency of occurrence for the partial profile under the fingernails was one in 16.13 million in the Caucasian population and one in 325.3 million in the black population and that Donald Nash’s DNA fit the standards for the profile. This testimony and evidence was utilized to implicate the Defendant in the homicide. The results of the recent DNA testing identifying 2 unknown males, while excluding Donald Nash, and the reversal in opinion of the expert testimony creates a reasonable doubt as to whether Donald Nash committed the offense charged in 2008. As a result, the charges against Donald Nash have been dismissed. This decision was made following consultation with the prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office, who concur in my conclusions and have recommended this same course of action.
"'I hope and pray that justice can be delivered for Judy and her family in the future for this tragic loss of life.'”
Spencer and Nash were romantic partners living in Salem at the time of her 1982 murder. She was an employee at Salem Memorial District Hospital while Nash worked in the AMAX lead mine. On March 11, 1982, Spencer was discovered strangled and shot by a shotgun blast to the neck at the old Bethlehem School site in Dent County. Her Oldsmobile sedan was found later that day abandoned on State Route FF approximately 20 miles away. Spencer was only 21 years old when murdered.
After 25 years of no arrests for Spencer’s killing, a three-person investigative team with the Missouri State Highway Patrol reopened the case in 2007 so modern DNA testing could be completed on evidence. Traces of Nash’s DNA were subsequently obtained from fingernail samples taken from Spencer after her death. The discovery lacked significance given the two were romantic partners, however, in its probable cause statement to arrest Nash the highway patrol investigators put forward a theory that since Spencer was witnessed washing her hair after last seeing Nash the day of her death, and traces of Nash’s DNA were later found, he must be guilty of her murder since hair washing would have removed Nash’s DNA from under Spencer’s fingernails.
The fingernail DNA was the only physical evidence against Nash presented to the jury during his 2009 trial. The state’s hair washing theory was also supported by expert testimony given by Ruth Montgomery, a criminologist supervisor with the state crime lab in Jefferson City.
Nash was subsequently convicted by the jury and sentenced to a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Beginning in 2012, Nash began habeas corpus litigation to claim his innocence with the help of attorneys with the St. Louis-based Bryan, Cave, Leighton & Paisner legal firm. Over the next eight years, the case was heard in multiple courts before the Supreme Court of Missouri ordered a series of evidentiary hearings in 2020. During those hearings, two members of the highway patrol investigative team could not account for how the hair washing theory came to be included in the probable cause statement during their taped depositions. The probable cause statement’s author, H. James Folsom, did not testify. Nash’s attorneys said the reason why is Folsom successfully “dodged” two different process servers attempting to present him with a subpoena.
Montgomery, the state’s original DNA expert, also revised her opinion on the hair washing theory during the evidentiary hearings to say hair washing would not have “great effect” on removing DNA but “more than no effect.” From the witness stand, Montgomery also said she did not provide or confirm the hair washing theory to Folsom before he wrote the probable cause statement used to arrest Nash.
Following the evidentiary hearings the supreme court’s appointed special master, Judge Richard K. Zerr, issued a 200-page report which concludes the prosecution’s forensic theory lacks factual foundation, and new evidence creates reasonable doubt of Nash’s guilt. Additionally, Zerr cites Nash was denied due process during his trial due to use of inadmissible testimony by the prosecution, mischaracterization of evidence to the jury and Nash suffering ineffective assistance of counsel.
The Supreme Court of Missouri later affirmed Zerr’s determination and on July 3 issued an order which states:
“The court concludes the petitioner, Donald Nash, has met the burden of proof necessary to establish his ‘gateway’ innocence claim in light of the discredited forensic evidence and the newly discovered DNA evidence. Mr. Nash has further established his claim of ineffective assistance in that his counsel failed to seek a Frye Hearing regarding the discredited expert forensic evidence. Additionally, Mr. Nash established he should have been allowed to present evidence of an alternative perpetrator. Mr. Nash, therefore, is entitled to habeas corpus relief. Mr. Nash's conviction is set aside, and this court orders Mr. Nash be immediately released from the department of corrections.”
While the supreme court’s order vacated Nash’s conviction, the original charge of capital murder remained in place. Curley’s Friday announcement formally withdraws that charge.