Part one in a two-part series.
At midday on March 11, 1982, two brothers steered their truck off Route 32 about eight miles southwest of Salem in the Missouri Ozarks to go feed their cows. Gerald and James Nickles trundled through some woods and parked at a gate. They stepped into a clearing around the one-room Bethlehem School.
The building stood vacant, unused for decades. Its yard was littered with Busch cans — a common nuisance, since local teens favored this spot for boozing and necking.
While tidying up, though, the brothers glanced at the yard’s edge. A pair of white panties dangled in the brush just over the barbed wire fence.
“I smelt the perfume off the clothes,” James would later testify.
They approached and saw more items: Levi’s jeans, a sock and brushed-suede shoes — one missing a shoelace. Proceeding to the rear of the school, they noticed twin drag marks in the dirt. The brothers followed the marks to a waistdeep outhouse foundation about 50 yards away. Now they were vexed. They suspected someone had ground-butchered one of their calves and dumped the carcass.
The pit was heaped with logs and leaves. Peering in, they spied a human leg.
James rushed to a nearby home and phoned the Dent County Sheriff’s Department. The dispatcher there radioed Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Dunlap, who arrived around 1:40 p.m.
When Dunlap climbed out of his patrol car, James pointed at the hole. The trooper walked over to it. He moved some debris and discerned a female body. Kneeling, he pressed his fingers to her neck for a pulse. It was chilled and stiff.
She was a brunette, five foot three, 115 pounds. She lay nude, save a bra and velour top hitched up to her armpits. She had been strangled with her own shoelace, then blasted in the neck with a shotgun.
At that time, 14,500 people lived in Dent County, a rolling plateau of pasture, oak and cedar. St. Louisans knew it as float-trip country, two hours southwest by car, a place where you could canoe along the bluffs of the Current River. The area was still absorbing years of flux: Many folks had left the fields to toil in the factories and shops of Salem, the only town, while a few thousand newcomers had moved in. The old clans still knew each other, but on that afternoon, a dozen men converged on the scene — troopers, the sheriff, the coroner — and no one recognized the girl.
“She’s laying there crumpled up in a dirty hole with us standing over it,” Dunlap recalls. “It didn’t seem real.”
The trooper left the crime scene by heading east on 32 back toward Salem, then abruptly pulled over. His colleagues had halted at an iron bridge. Acting on a hunch, one of them searched the dry creek bed below and picked up a leather purse. The driver’s license photo inside matched the victim. It was 21-year-old Judy Spencer.
The Spencers were a well-respected family with a plot of land south of Montauk State Park, down in the valley carved out by the Ashley Creek. Kenneth Spencer, Judy’s dad, raised beef cattle and co-owned a lumber mill there. Kenneth and his wife Mildred were founding members of the Montauk Baptist Church. They were strict parents who led their children to services thrice weekly.
Judy was the baby daughter — the fourth of the five Spencer kids. A feisty extrovert, she had made cheerleader at Houston High School in adjacent Texas County. She loved to go sledding with her nieces and nephews, to water-ski on Table Rock Lake and to sail her Oldsmobile down the back roads at night, windows down, singing along to eight-track tapes of the Eagles and REO Speedwagon.
Fresh out of business college, she had returned home to work the switchboard at Salem Memorial Hospital. She rented a house on the east side of town and trimmed the long caramel hair of her youth to a short bob. She was a young woman, striking out on her own. Then this.
“The entire county still is in shock this week over the horrible murder of the Spencer girl,” the Salem News opined. “This heinous crime has caused considerable fear.”
Senior circuit judge and former Dent County Prosecutor J. Max Price recalls the impact as “tremendous,” adding, “You couldn’t go into a restaurant without hearing about it.”
What stunned locals wasn’t just how the young woman died; it was who she was. In dozens of interviews with Riverfront Times, they utter the same phrase again and again: Crimes like this just didn’t happen here. Not to families like the Spencers.
And the Spencers proved extraordinarily driven to get justice for Judy. For 27 years they prodded law enforcement to solve the case, with no results.
Finally, in 2008, the state tested Judy’s old fingernail clippings and detected a trace amount of DNA belonging to Donald “Doc” Nash, her boyfriend at the time of her death. The Spencers had long eyed Nash with suspicion. When a jury convicted him of the murder in 2009, they felt their prayers and persistence had paid off, at last.
But not everyone is convinced. Three attorneys at Bryan Cave, a prominent St. Louis-based law firm, believe Nash, now 73, is innocent. They are so sure, they’ve agreed to represent him pro bono. When they last took on such a case, they won, and the exoneration sparked national headlines and a multi-million- dollar settlement.
Yet this one is different. DNA discovered decades late often remedies a wrongful conviction, but here the Bryan Cave team argues that it caused one. They believe that the jury misinterpreted the fingernail DNA — a largely unexplored corner of forensic science — and never got to hear about other likely suspects.
The campaign to free Nash is only the latest twist in a case that has altered dozens of lives, in several states, for 33 years and counting.
“A lot of cases, I never hear about again,” says former highway patrol sergeant Henry “Jamie” Folsom, one of the investigators. “This case never goes away. It just keeps resurfacing.”
- COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
- Doc Nash in front of the Pontiac Grand Prix he totaled in 1981.
When Donald “Doc” Nash took a shine to Judy Spencer in the summer of 1981, her family wasn’t keen on the prospect. The rugged laborer with the mustache and hazel eyes was 39 years old — nearly 18 years her senior. And he wasn’t an observant Christian.
“We socialized with people from our church,” says Judy’s older sister, Jeanne Paris. “He just wasn’t our kind of people.”
Unlike Judy’s father, Nash owned neither land nor business. He’d grown up poor in Dent County, for a time living in a dirt-floor shack. His mother, who was part Cherokee, raised him and four siblings after his dad, a violent alcoholic, abandoned them. She fed the family by shooting possum, squirrel and rabbit.
Nash topped out at only five foot six, but learned how to scrap with his older brothers. At age twenty, he got caught stealing from a grocer in Salem and was convicted of felony burglary, then received two years probation.
Whereas Judy had attended business college, Nash never even went to high school. He married young, raised a daughter and worked at his father-in-law’s gas station in Salem making $1.25 an hour.
In the 1970s, his prospects brightened. Mining companies had discovered a 60-mile strip of lead ore just across the county line. It was called the Viburnum Trend. Missouri was soon producing almost all of the country’s lead, which went primarily into car batteries. Nash landed a job underground at the Amax company’s site. Eight years later, he transferred up to the smelter and grew active in union affairs.
By 1981, Nash was making about $14 an hour at the most productive lead mine in America, but was in divorce proceedings with his wife. He blew off steam at local bars. His favorite was the Tower Inn, a windowless tavern in the basement of a ten-story hotel. Loud and smoky and crowded, it was the epicenter of Salem’s nightlife.
In the parking lot one evening, Nash met Judy Spencer. He invited her to a bar in Rolla where a band was playing.
“We were dancing, and she was loving on me,” Nash recalls. “I just worshipped her.”
Within a few months, Nash moved into Judy’s house and helped with the rent. He felt ready for renewal. He’d recently totaled his Pontiac Grand Prix while drunk, replacing it with a 1979 Chevy pickup. New truck, new girlfriend, new home, new start.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SPENCERS
- In the late seventies, Judy made cheereleader at Houston High School in Texas County.
Judy confided to friends that she liked Nash because he treated a lady right, unlike boys her own age. Something about the words he spoke in his gravelly voice appealed to her. They planned to get married.
“They seemed happy,” says Janet Edwards, who had been Judy’s best friend since high school and, like her, worked at the hospital. “Doc seemed a little bit possessive, though,” she says, adding that Judy seemed to notice it, too.
The day before the murder, Judy and another hospital colleague, Suzette Edmundson, both had appointments right after work with the same podiatrist in Pulaski County, 60 miles away. Judy offered to drive. She took Nash’s pickup because the couple had traded vehicles that morning (it was Nash’s turn to drive carpool to the mine, and her Oldsmobile had more room). Edwards tagged along on the bench seat, just for fun.
After the doctor’s visit, they dropped off Edmundson, then continued to Edwards’ apartment. Judy wanted to keep chatting with her best friend, so they went inside.
Around 7 p.m., Judy felt compelled to check in with Nash, who was at home waiting. She called him and fibbed, claiming she was still making her way back to Salem, but would arrive home shortly.
Nash didn’t buy it. He drove her Oldsmobile over to Edwards’ ground-floor apartment. Sure enough, there sat his pickup. He abandoned Judy’s vehicle in the lot and walked toward his own.
Judy, realizing she’d been caught in a lie, went out to speak with him and exchange keys. Edwards couldn’t hear their exact words, but watched through a window as Nash flung Judy’s keys into the grass, then drove away.
Judy came back inside.“I guess that it’s over this time,” she announced. She reported that Nash had just told her, “That will be the last time you lie to me, bitch.” She added, “He thinks I’m ugly. He doesn’t like my hair this way.”
So Judy went over to the kitchen sink, drenched her hair under the faucet and restyled it. It seemed like a trivial act at the time — Edwards didn’t pay close attention. But decades later, the moment would take on a critical significance.
Judy drove to get gas, then went home to Nash. The couple argued, Nash would later say, while Judy pulled off her dress slacks and put on jeans, a black top, brushed suede shoes and a windbreaker. Then she left.
Her next stop was back at Edwards’ apartment. Judy was upset. Her relationship looked doomed, she told her friend. The two women talked for a while until Judy decided to drive to Houston, “just to get away.” Edwards chose to stay home. When Judy drove off, it was about 8:30 p.m.
They never saw each other again.
“I’ve always regretted not going with her," Edwards says. “I don’t believe it would’ve happened if I’d gone with her.”
- COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
- Judy Spencer and Donald "Doc" Nash shortly before her murder.
Nash called Edwards twice that night asking about his girlfriend, then several more times the next day while Edwards worked at the hospital.
By 3 p.m., Judy hadn’t shown up for her evening shift.
“I became worried,” Edwards would later testify. “She was very responsible when it came to a work commitment.”
Edwards met up with Nash and together they drove to Houston, the small town in Texas County that Judy had mentioned before her disappearance. They saw no trace of her.
Returning to Salem, they stopped at the couple’s house to check the answering machine. While they were there, the phone rang. A friend of Judy’s working at the hospital told Nash to come right away.
When they arrived, they saw Trooper Gary Dunlap standing in the hallway near the emergency room, along with Judy’s colleague, who announced, “Here comes the boyfriend now.”
Dunlap turned to face them. He told them Judy was dead.
“Oh my God!” cried Nash, who became “visibly upset,” according to the trooper. Edwards crumpled to the floor, screaming. A doctor had to sedate her.
Nash agreed to be interviewed down the hall, in the hospital’s chapel.
“How did she die?” he asked the trooper. “It looks like she was shot,” Dunlap replied. Nash started sobbing — a “crying fit,” Dunlap would later describe it.
Dunlap read him his rights, and then Nash recounted his activities of the night before. Once Judy had left the house for good, he said, he worried about her driving around alone at night. Within minutes, he hopped in his truck to go look for her. He’d even passed her at one point in downtown Salem going the opposite way, he said. But by the time he’d made a U-turn, she was gone.
Nash then made a comment to Dunlap that would come back to haunt him: If Judy was really drunk, he observed, she would get in a car with anybody.
“Over the years, I’ve talked to people and interviewed people,” Dunlap says. “And you just never know who’s lying to you and who’s telling you truth.”
Around 10 p.m. that night, Trooper Dunlap was standing in the sheriff’s office swapping info with a supervisor when a county resident called the dispatcher. A maroon car had been abandoned near his home since morning, he said. He relayed the license plate number.
It was Judy Spencer’s Oldsmobile.
Dunlap and several colleagues rolled out to the scene, about twelve miles northwest of town on Route FF. They discovered a four-foot skidmark on the pavement leading up to the car. Its nose had dropped into the ditch, which was shallow but steep. The back wheels had apparently spun out as the driver tried to reverse.
Dunlap and a sergeant grabbed flashlights and climbed down to take a look. The car was unlocked, with the keys in the console. Several items lay on the floor, including an empty Busch bottle on the passenger side and an empty Busch can on the driver’s side.
That single Busch can may have matched the other five found at the Bethlehem School, making a six-pack. Yet patrolmen would discard all six cans without dusting for fingerprints.
After they towed the car to Troop I headquarters in Rolla, however, two sergeants dusted the side windows and discovered four sets of latent prints. When the prints didn’t match Nash or anybody else at that time, they were filed away.
So was another crucial piece of evidence: the victim’s fingernails. Judy Spencer’s body was taken to a funeral home in Salem, where Sgt. P.J. Mertens clipped off her nails one by one into white envelopes. This clipping was routine. The invention of DNA tests was still two years away.
“I have clipped so many victims’ fingernails, I reached a point of wondering why I was doing it,” Mertens would later testify. “I was just following procedure.”
- COURTESY OF THE SPENCERS
- The Spencer family, from left to right: Judy, Betty, Jeanne, Paul (below), Glen, Mildred and Kenneth.
On Judy’s last Christmas with her family in December 1981, she donned a Santa Claus costume to ho-ho-ho for her nieces and nephews.
“That was Judy in the height of her glory,” recalls Jeanne Paris, her oldest sister. (One niece memorably inquired, “Why does Santa have blue eyeshadow?”)
Paris is now 62, but her resemblance to Judy’s photos is clear. They share a similar gaze and tip of the nose.
Paris was close to Judy, but being six years older, felt like her protector, too. She wasn’t thrilled with the guest Judy brought to Christmas that final year, Doc Nash. “He was very nice and civil,” Paris recalls, “but I can’t say I ever really liked him.”
Still, in the aftermath of the murder, neither Paris nor her parents imagined Nash could be involved — until they spoke with Dent County Sheriff Clifford Jadwin.
Jadwin was then in his second term as elected sheriff. He knew the Spencers. On the day Judy’s body was found, the sheriff descended to Ashley Creek to deliver the bad news in person. He didn’t oversee the investigation — it was the highway patrol’s case — but he sat in while patrolmen questioned people.
Before the funeral, Jadwin took Kenneth and Mildred Spencer aside. He said that, in his mind, the primary suspect was Doc Nash.
“I had him pegged from the very beginning,” Jadwin tells RFT . “I just never could prove it.”
Jadwin admonished the Spencers to act naturally around Nash, lest they tip law enforcement’s hand. So for a few Sundays after the murder, as Nash accompanied Judy’s parents to Montauk Baptist Church, they feared their daughter’s killer sat beside them on the pew.
“The law had already told us he was the one that did it,” Mildred Spencer said in a deposition. “Doc would never look us in the eyes. So I don’t know. We just had that feeling.”
So did the highway patrol. Two weeks after Judy’s death, they gave Nash a polygraph test. It lasted more than two and a half hours. The technician labeled his attitude “nervous” and his movements “extreme,” before concluding that “he was not telling the entire truth.”
The scrutiny was getting to Nash. On May 21, he called Janet Edwards to complain that Judy’s father and a local preacher had just urged him to take another polygraph.
Edwards invited him over to talk. By this time, Edwards too suspected Nash. She tipped off investigators, who outfitted her kitchen with a hidden microphone. Sheriff Jadwin and a highway patrol lieutenant hid in her bedroom, listening.
Nash arrived at 9:35 p.m. He did not confess.
“This whole damn town thinks I done it,” he said. “You can’t imagine, Janet, what I’m going through.”
“Is that why you turned to Della?” Edwards asked.
“Della is a friend.”
By then, Nash was living with 23-year-old Della Wingfield, an acquaintance of his daughter. Nash had dated her the previous year, before he got serious with Judy. Once Judy died, Nash needed to vacate the couple’s house so that her conservative parents wouldn’t know they’d lived together. He needed a new place to live, and Wingfield did too, so they both moved into the same trailer.
“It hasn’t even been three months and you couldn’t even wait that long,” Edwards said.
“OK, Janet,” Nash replied. “I’m not going to argue with you.”
He did admit to some things in that taped conversation. He admitted to being a jealous boyfriend (“I was jealous because I loved her”). He admitted to being unable to clear himself (“I don’t have an alibi”). He admitted to hitting Judy once (“All I did then was slapped her jaw a little bit”). And he swore to stay unmarried — and to hire a private investigator to hunt down her killer.
Instead, he married Wingfield the next year. He never hired a detective. And he also quit speaking to the authorities.
“He lawyered up,” recalls Jadwin, “and that was the end of it.”
Nash didn’t slink into the shadows, though. He remained in Dent County and got elected president of his union, United Steelworkers Local 7447, which boasted 500 members. When they went on strike for seven months in 1984, Nash was quoted frequently in the Salem News as a negotiator. After the mine and smelter shut down two years later, he and his wife moved to Illinois.
Yet the Spencers kept on him. In March 1985, Jeanne Paris hired a private investigator to give the case a fresh look. Within months, he too viewed Nash as the culprit.
The Spencers bought ads in three area newspapers in early 1986 offering a $25,000 reward for info leading to the conviction of Judy’s killer.
“We believe we know who committed this crime but we need more evidence,” they declared. “Won’t you please help? Let’s put this person behind bars for what he did. Your daughter, sister or friend might be next.”
Paris always kept an open mind to other suspects, she says. “It wasn’t that we wanted to make just anybody pay,” she tells RFT. “We wanted her killer to pay.”
But she mailed many cards and letters to Nash.
“Have a happy March 10,” she wrote him in 1987. “Please know that my family will never let up on you until you are in prison and paying for taking Judy’s life.”
On March 12, 2007, Jeanne Paris dialed highway patrol headquarters in Jefferson City to plead for action — again. It was the 25th anniversary of her sister’s murder, and still, no arrests. This time, Sgt. Jamie Folsom picked up the phone.
A hulking ex-Army investigator with a country baritone, Folsom had worked on crimes in Troop I’s zone since 2001. Now he was in charge of that three-person unit.
He already knew of Paris, who had been calling for years.
“I’d never seen anything quite like that,” Folsom tells RFT. “She just never let it go. So I told her we’d take a look at it.”
He and his team pulled the old evidence out of storage and shipped it to the lab for DNA testing. Then they leafed through the piles of reports. It took months; other cases diverted their attention.
Paris called every three weeks for updates. On some occasions, she broke down in frustration.
Her sister-in-law, Darla Spencer, was frustrated too. She’d married Judy’s younger brother decades earlier and could still recall Judy calling her “little sis.”
In 2007 Darla was working as a records officer at a jail in Licking and mentioned Judy’s case to her warden, Michael Bowersox, who was also an adjunct faculty member at Drury College’s campus in Cabool.
Intrigued, Bowersox asked if he could structure his forensic science course around the Judy Spencer case. The family consented. The Salem News caught wind of the class and ran a story, which got picked up by other Ozarks media. The sheriff’s office fielded calls from people with new tips and theories.
Yet Folsom grew irritated. The class had somehow obtained copies of official reports from an open murder case, weakening his advantage as an interrogator.
“Jeanne and Darla were trying anything — that’s how desperate they were,” says Folsom. “But it could’ve backfired.”
On Valentine’s Day 2008, state crime lab analyst Ruth Montgomery contacted Folsom. She had tested Judy’s fingernails. One of the right-hand nails was broken, indicating a struggle, but Montgomery couldn’t extract a usable profile from it.
She did, however, extract a tiny mixture of DNA from the left-hand fingernails. Part of it belonged to Judy, and part to an unidentified male.
Folsom’s task, then, was to find out who.
Folsom and his partner Scott Mertens (son of P.J. Mertens, one of the original investigators) drove out to see Nash on March 13, 2008.
By this time, Nash was 65, a semi-retired maintenance man. He was living in a trailer with his third wife, Terry, in Beaufort, a small community 75 miles northeast of Salem. He had not been charged with any crime in the intervening 26 years.
On the morning investigators arrived, he was leaf-blowing his side yard. They walked down to see him.
Flashing their badges, they explained the new DNA finding. They asked him to swab his own mouth to be eliminated as a suspect. Nash agreed, giving them two samples.
“As Nash was utilizing the buccal swabs,” Folsom later wrote in a report, “he appeared to be very nervous as his hands were shaking.”
Nash walked them back to their Impala, then asked, “Will you let me know if I am eliminated?” Folsom agreed to do so. Then the patrolmen drove away.
In the car, they noted how Nash had phrased his question: He wished to know if, not when, he was eliminated.
“To us, that was kind of an odd statement,” Mertens would later say in a deposition.
On March 19, Montgomery concluded that Nash’s DNA sample was consistent with the unknown male profile. Folsom again drove out to Nash’s trailer on the afternoon of March 26.
Nash was already on his front porch with his schnauzer, who barked hysterically as Folsom approached. The officer recorded their conversation with a hidden microphone.
After some small talk, Nash said, “I don’t want to talk no more. I’ve told them everything I know about this case.”
“I’m gonna tell you straight up, though,” Folsom said. “You matched the DNA that we found on her body.”
“That can’t be possible,” Nash said. “That can’t be possible,” he said again, then a third time.
“It is possible,” Folsom said. “We matched your DNA to evidence at the crime scene there and evidence on Judy’s body.”
“That just can’t be,” said Nash. “Just no way, because I did not have a thing to do with it.”
Nash excused himself to go fix his sink. But Folsom had one last question.
“I have to ask you this,” he said. “It’s a part of my job: Did you kill Judy Spencer?”
“Nope,” replied Nash. “No sir, I did not.”
The next day, Nash was charged with capital murder. Advised by his attorney, he turned himself in at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department the following morning.
When Folsom picked him up for the transfer to Dent County, Nash was cordial, he recalls. Folsom offered him some gum and made a comment about the weather. Nash didn’t respond. He just stared out the window.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SPENCERS
- Judy washes her Oldsmobile, which was later found abandoned in a ditch on Route FF.
At Nash’s initial arraignment in Salem on March 31, 2008, Judy’s mother Mildred, then 77, read aloud from a sheet of paper, opposing Nash’s release on bond. He might flee, she warned, and any delay could outlast her husband’s health, or her own. “We deserve to be a part of this,” she said.
Nash’s family attended the hearing, too. His older brother Kenny, a soon-to-be-elected alderman of Salem, was there. So was Nash’s wife, Terry. He blew a kiss to her.
Salem News publisher Donald Dodd also sat in the courtroom, watching. Calm and reflective by nature, the middle-aged Dodd had taken over the daily from his stepfather in 1996 and begun writing weekly columns. Many were folksy and light, but when wading into local debates, he became a voice of reason, the unofficial conscience of Salem. Dodd had friends in both the Spencer and Nash clans.
“This will be a heart-wrenching process,” he wrote in his column the next day, “[but] our judicial system is not all about emotion and family ties, revenge or exoneration. Our prayers should not be for guilt or innocence, but for truth.”
Nash’s bond was set at $750,000, cash only. His attorney got the venue shifted north to Crawford County, though a scheduling conflict bumped the trial itself to the neighboring county’s courthouse in Rolla.
The jury was bussed there on the evening of Sunday, October 25 and sequestered at the Comfort Suites for the week of the trial.
The gallery filled up all five days, recalls Dodd. Appointed media coordinator by the judge, he had to organize TV news crews clamoring for footage.
Security was beefed up, too. Justifying this extra expense later, assistant attorney general Ted Bruce wrote, “The concern over violence and disruption was real.”
The Spencers sat mostly on the left; the women wore purple in solidarity with other victims of domestic violence. They also wore Judy’s rings, Paris says, and spritzed on Jovan Musk Oil — the perfume Judy always wore.
“We were hoping Doc could smell it,” she says.
Assistant attorney general Ted Bruce presented his case over two days. He ended with his key witness: state lab technician Ruth Montgomery. A seven-year veteran, she’d worked on hundreds of cases and handled thousands of pieces of evidence.
Montgomery testified that the smallest amount of DNA she could work with was one nanogram, or one billionth of a gram. In this case, she had found a mixture of five nanograms under all of Judy’s lefthand fingernails combined. The mixture was equal parts Judy and Nash, she claimed, with no third party detected.
On the stand, Montgomery never directly refuted the notion that such a mixture might be normal for a couple that was living together. She didn’t have to. The prosecution held a trump card: Judy had washed her hair in Janet Edwards’ sink the night before she died.
“I would expect that washing your hair, the mechanical manipulation of the scalp or the hair would remove DNA from underneath the fingernails,” Montgomery testified. “I cannot give you a quantity that would or would not persist … but I would expect that it would have a great effect.”
The inference was clear: The only way to explain Nash’s DNA under Judy’s nails was to assume she clawed at him in her final seconds.
Yet Bruce assured jurors in his closing statement that to convict Nash, they didn’t even need the DNA. For one thing, he reminded them, Judy’s body showed no trace of sexual assault, nor was anything stolen from her purse. Discarding any motive of robbery or rape, he said, what’s left is a boyfriend irate over a break-up.
Nash likely caught up with Judy driving on Route FF, the prosecutor suggested, then forced her off the road, took her to the schoolhouse and strangled her. How else, he argued, had Nash been able to list every item of Judy’s clothing on her last night alive?
“Does a married man, much less a boyfriend, know what kind of shoes a woman is wearing on a day?” Bruce asked jurors. Nash only knew “because he had to reach down and look at those shoes and pull that shoestring out before wrapping it around her neck and killing her.”
He also referenced Nash’s comment that if Judy was drunk, she’d get in the car with anybody.
“Is that what you say when you hear that the woman you supposedly loved had died?” Bruce asked. “What a terrible thing to say.”
And then there was Nash’s move-in with Della Wingfield just days after Judy’s funeral. “He said he loved Judy,” Bruce said, “but she’s not even in the grave and he’s moving on.”
Finally, there was the way Nash trembled when he swabbed his own mouth for DNA for Sgt. Folsom in March 2007 — and the way he’d asked, “Will you let me know if I’m eliminated?” If?
“See, a slip of the tongue sometimes tells us more than that person wants us to know,” Bruce said. He added, “It’s kind of like a puzzle. Everything comes together.”[image-8]
The jury’s first vote revealed eight favoring guilt, with four unsure, according to a juror who asked RFT not to print her name. Within four hours, the holdouts relented.
“The DNA was the solid foundation,” the juror says. “And there were so many inconsistencies and lies he told. That would be circumstantial, but that hurt him a lot.”
They reached their decision at 6:59 p.m. on Thursday, October 29. When the judge read their guilty verdict aloud, Nash lowered his eyes and muttered “oh my God.” The Spencer family tried to stifle their sobs.
“I cannot even describe the elation and the release,” says Paris. “This is what we had worked for.”
Seven weeks later, a judge sentenced Nash to life in prison. Paris was allowed to read an impact statement.
She wished Nash “a long, miserable and uncomfortable life” behind bars, and that he would “die a broken, lonely person” for killing Judy.
Added Paris, “I hope she spit in your face with her last breath.”[image-7]
Nash’s first defense attorney, Frank K. Carlson, is based in Union, but on a recent December afternoon, he sits down with a reporter at O’Connell’s Pub in St. Louis. Ordering a shot of Jameson and a pint of Guinness, the grizzle- jowled lawyer recalls a case that, as he puts it, has been a burr in his saddle for a long time.
Carlson explains that his first rule as defense counsel is to avoid deciding on his client’s guilt or innocence. Rather, he lasers in on the state’s evidence and attacks it.
“Frank fights like hell for the benefit of his clients,” says William “Camm” Seay, the now-retired judge who presided over Nash’s arraignment. “He can even be overbearing at times.”
When Carlson first weighed the state’s case against Nash, he thought it so feeble that he doubted it would survive a preliminary hearing. But it did.
Within a year, the state offered him a deal: Have Nash plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a 27-year sentence with the possibility of parole after nine years. But Carlson broke his own rule: He concluded Nash was a nice man, and incapable of murder. He and his client chose to take their chances with a jury.
After the conviction, Carlson appealed directly to the Missouri Supreme Court, but the justices upheld the verdict in May 2011.
At that point, Nash wanted new counsel.
Carlson, meanwhile, wanted to give the incoming attorneys a chance to attack him as ineffective, a standard avenue of appeal that he himself couldn’t have pursued. He took out a deed of trust on Nash’s property to secure the fees for himself and six colleagues; those fees exceeded $1 million. Then he withdrew.
Carlson officially moved on, but his client’s plight never left him. “I still lose sleep over this case,” he says, staring at the table top. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you.”
The worst part, Carlson asserts, is that there’s a whole different side of this murder that he never got to present to the jury.
“Donald Nash did not commit this crime,” he says. “I know who did.”
Next week: Part 2, "Trail to Nowhere," is now online.We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org