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Trail To Nowhere 

For decades, the Spencer family sought justice for Judy. But what if they got the wrong man?

click to enlarge Judy's shoe was found at the crime scene after her killer strangled her with her shoelace, then blasted her with a shotgun.

Judy's shoe was found at the crime scene after her killer strangled her with her shoelace, then blasted her with a shotgun.

Part two in a two-part series. See part one, "A Killing in the Hills"

From the thirty-second floor of the Met Square building in downtown St. Louis, attorney Charlie Weiss can watch the Mississippi River's slow roll.

"It's very frustrating," he says, reclined at his desk on a recent December afternoon. "You don't want to see somebody suffer in prison for something they didn't do, particularly for a murder like this."

Weiss has been striving for years to free inmate Donald "Doc" Nash, a former lead miner from Salem, Missouri. In 2009, Nash was convicted of fatally strangling his girlfriend, Judy Spencer, back in 1982. Nash is now in his seventies, and serving a life sentence. Weiss believes he is innocent — and running out of time.

"Doc's health is not good," the lawyer says. "Hopefully we'll get him out before he passes away."

If anyone can, it's Weiss. He's a slight and unassuming man with small-town roots, but his résumé reads like an avalanche of honors, achievements and board seats. He is a partner at Bryan Cave, a firm headquartered in St. Louis with 1,000 attorneys worldwide. His specialty is commercial and complex litigation, though he has done some pro bono work for low-income criminal defendants — most famously, for Josh Kezer.

Kezer spent sixteen years in Missouri prisons for a homicide he didn't commit. Weiss and his colleague Stephen Snodgrass got Kezer exonerated. Their victory inspired an episode of 48 Hours, resulted in a $4 million settlement and prompted people across the country to contact Kezer about their own innocence campaigns.

So in December 2011, Kezer wasn't surprised to receive an email with the subject line, "Innocent." It was from a woman named Diane Monnett — Doc Nash's daughter. She was desperate to free her father. Over several hours, Monnett and Kezer traded six emails, and Kezer came to believe in Nash's cause. He referred it to his former attorneys the next morning.

Weiss and Snodgrass began poring over the original highway patrol reports and the trial transcripts. Right away, they saw holes in the case.

Some of it was a matter of faulty presumptions. Judy had been strangled and left in a remote Ozarks forest, with some of her clothes strewn about the crime scene. The state reasoned Nash must have been the killer who tossed her clothes in the woods because, when questioned, he could detail the outfit she'd been wearing.

Yet, the attorneys noticed, Nash had likewise been able to recall the outfit she'd worn even before that. After all, he'd been at home while she changed clothes, and watched her leave in anger. Later that night, while driving around looking for her, he likely thought about her clothing.

The state also tried to cast suspicion on Nash for moving in with another woman shortly after the murder. "Talk about motive," prosecutor Ted Bruce had said in his closing statement. "Gee, I wonder why Judy's not so important now." But Nash wasn't trapped in a marriage with Judy, so this "motive" made no sense. Plus, it led the state to make two incompatible claims: that Nash was hell-bent on possessing Judy on one hand, and escaping her on the other.

The state further pointed to Nash's nervousness when he was twice visited by the highway patrol in March 2008. On the second visit, Nash trembled upon learning that his DNA matched material under Judy's fingernails, muttering, "It's not possible." The attorneys thought: Wouldn't that be the natural reaction of someone about to be wrongfully accused of murder? How did the state expect him to behave?

Once Weiss and Snodgrass turned to the state's physical evidence, they saw a deeper weakness: None of it clearly placed Nash at the scene — and some of it pointed elsewhere.

For one thing, investigators in 1982 had noticed fresh tire tracks near Judy's body, made by a van or truck. The tracks measured 70 inches between the wheels — which didn't match either Judy's Oldsmobile or Nash's Chevy.

Secondly, Judy had been shot in the neck, but Nash didn't own any firearms. His ex-wife's brother kept a shotgun in his unlocked truck, yet patrolmen had tested that weapon and ruled it out.

Thirdly, Nash submitted to a gunshot residue test the day the body was found. The result was negative. While administering this test, officers looked at Nash's arms, neck and face, and noted no scratches or struggle marks.

click to enlarge Judy Spencer. The popular cheerleader was the fourth of five Spencer kids, raised in a devout Baptist home. - COURTESY OF THE SPENCER FAMILY
  • COURTESY OF THE SPENCER FAMILY
  • Judy Spencer. The popular cheerleader was the fourth of five Spencer kids, raised in a devout Baptist home.

That fact led the attorneys to a flaw in the state's showcase exhibit: the fingernails.

The prosecution argued that since Judy washed her hair right before her death, the presence of Nash's DNA under her nails meant she must have scratched at him, fighting for her life. However, the analyst who discovered the DNA couldn't tell what kind of cell it came from — blood, skin or something else. Her predecessors had viewed the nails through a microscope in 1982 and saw no tissue at all.

So the attorneys asked: Could there be a simpler — and totally innocent — explanation?

Yes, says Moses Schanfield, a forensic science professor at George Washington University hired by Bryan Cave to review the case.

Schanfield explained in a 2014 affidavit that skin cells obtained by scratching are flaky, tend to sit loosely under the nails and wash away with ease. "Body fluids," however, tend to flow, "and can be pushed deep into the crevices under a person's fingernails."

Scientific research on this topic is "limited," Schanfield wrote. But three years after Nash's trial, the Canadian government's Centre of Forensic Sciences published a survey of studies from which an "overall picture" emerges: Foreign DNA gets transferred easily by body fluids during sexual behavior, and even a hard scrubbing of fingernails with soap and a brush fails to remove it all.

The most likely source of Nash's DNA, Schanfield writes, was a bodily fluid such as semen or saliva. And that points to consensual contact, not a strangling. (Asked right after the murder when he and Judy last had sex, Nash guessed two days before her death.)

As an expert forensic witness — one boasting a 27-year career filled with published books and articles, a master's degree from Harvard and a doctorate from the University of Michigan — Schanfield was paid for this opinion.

However, he points out, he's not contradicting the state's expert. At trial, she only ventured to say she "would expect" that hair-washing would have "a great effect" on Judy's nails. Under cross-examination, she admitted total ignorance of how much DNA had been under Judy's nails to begin with; whether Judy actually used shampoo, and if so, how much, and whether it was soap- or detergent-based; and whether the couple touched each other when Judy returned home to change clothes on the last night of her life.

Absent this critical data, it's impossible to say with any scientific certainty whether Judy and Nash had had a mortal struggle, Schanfield wrote.

The DNA evidence in this case, he concluded, is "essentially meaningless."

click to enlarge Judy Spencer's grave at North Lawn Cemetery, Dent County, Missouri, in January 2016 - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • Judy Spencer's grave at North Lawn Cemetery, Dent County, Missouri, in January 2016

At trial, when prosecutor Ted Bruce assigned sinister meaning to Nash's words, perhaps nothing rankled more than Nash's statement to a trooper that "Judy is an alcoholic, and when she started drinking, she usually got really drunk and would get in a car with anybody." In his closing argument, Bruce called it "a terrible thing to say."

But once Weiss and his team dug into the case files, they learned something the jurors hadn't: Nash wasn't the only one to say it. The statement was echoed in 1982 by multiple people who had no reason to lie. Far from damning Nash, the lawyers believe, it might be key to understanding Judy's fate.

Eight of Judy's peers — friends, colleagues, ex-suitors and acquaintances, all younger than 27 — mentioned her heavy drinking when interviewed by highway patrolmen right after the murder. She would "drink to extremes," they said, or drink "until she passed out" or get "extremely intoxicated." This group included her best friend, Janet Edwards, who had spoken to Judy about cutting back.

In fact, as a couple, Judy and Nash had made a pact to quit drinking. But on the last night of her life, she lapsed. She drank two Coors Light bottles on the way to a podiatrist appointment in Pulaski County, two Coors Light cans on the way back and one Busch bottle at Edwards' apartment before Nash caught her fibbing.

When Nash then angrily told Judy, "This will be the last time you lie to me, bitch," he meant it not as a death threat, but rather as a break-up threat. Even Judy herself — the only person to hear the comment — took it this way, because she walked back into Edwards apartment and said, "I guess that it's over this time."

And she didn't act afraid of him. If anything, she seemed eager to work things out — or at least, to keep arguing. She washed out the hairstyle he didn't like, then drove home to the house they shared.

Upon her arrival, "they began to argue about her drinking," Nash told investigators, adding that Judy "became mad," changed clothes and drove back toward Edwards' apartment. While she was en route, Nash called Edwards to say "how much he loved Judy and was worried about her being arrested for drinking," according to Edwards' statement to the patrol.

Once Judy returned to Edwards' place, venting her feelings, she told her friend "it was over for Doc and her, as they hadn't fought like that since they had quit drinking." She asked Edwards to accompany her to Houston; Edwards stayed home. Judy took a Busch bottle for the road.

Walking to her car, Judy ran into Edwards' neighbor, Christine Terrill, and invited her to Houston. Terrill declined, she later said, "because she was aware of Judy's reputation when she was drinking." By the time Judy drove away for good at 8:30 p.m., she'd consumed roughly five beers over five hours.

She wasn't drunk; the body breaks down one beer per hour. But Judy's autopsy showed something significant: a blood-alcohol content of 0.18.

That's more than twice Missouri's legal limit. Clearly, Judy's drinking continued after she left for Houston.

The Busch bottle in her car could have been the same one she'd grabbed from Edwards' apartment. But what about the Busch can in her car, and the other five Busch cans found at the Bethlehem School? Were they hers, or someone else's?

"Who was she drinking with?" asks Weiss. "Nobody has ever explained that."

The state never nailed down a precise time of death, but the blood alcohol content finding means that, at whatever moment Judy died, she was drunk. And when Judy was drunk, she became unpredictable, according to her peers.

Jo Ann Brookshire, a hospital colleague and former roommate, told the patrol that if Judy was drinking, it was not unusual for her to hook up with a stranger or drive along "seldom-traveled" country roads by herself.

Phillip Edwards, who said he dated Judy off and on for four months, recalled that on a recent winter night, Judy had called asking for help. She was intoxicated and lost on Route DD without any gas.

Dave Tiefenthaler, who said he dated her for a month, told the patrol, "When she was drinking, one minute she loved you and wanted to get married, and the next minute, she would be hitting you."

Deanna Hubbs, another hospital colleague, said that "when she gets drunk she often leads men on, then makes them stop."

Clay Scott, her high school sweetheart, said, "If Judy was drinking, there was no telling who she might have been with."

None of this, Weiss clarifies, is meant to imply that Judy was a bad person. "The point is not to trash the victim," he insists. "This is a horrible crime. Obviously, she didn't deserve it. The point is to show it wasn't Doc."

Weiss is aware his legal briefs won't endear him to the Spencers. Yet, he says, "if I were the family, I would want to know for sure who the real killer is. It could've been a real random thing: Her car runs into a ditch, somebody picks her up."

Weiss says it's natural for a family to fixate on one suspect and start filling in holes to make their theory work.

"I'm not blaming them," he says. "I just don't think Doc did it."

click to enlarge Donald "Doc" Nash. A lead miner, he was 18 years older than his girlfriend, Judy. - COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
  • COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
  • Donald "Doc" Nash. A lead miner, he was 18 years older than his girlfriend, Judy.

In a secluded corner of Dent County, at the end of a gravel driveway lined with bull pines, Tim Bell offers his bloodied hand to greet a reporter.

"Sorry about that," he says. It's a bright November morning during deer season. Behind him, a small buck has been shot and lashed to the back of a four-wheeler.

Bell is now a process server and bounty hunter, which explains the revolver strapped to his husky torso. Clad in blue denim overalls, he sits down by a bonfire in his side yard to tell how, as a Dent County Sheriff's deputy, he once felt hot on the trail of Judy Spencer's killer.

Bell joined the department in 1991. Even then, ten years after the crime, Judy's murder was still a hot topic. "That's all everybody talked about there," he recalls.

A new sheriff, Bob Wofford, was elected a year later. He asked Bell and Roger Barr, a county juvenile officer, to poke around in their spare time.

Little came of it at first. Then, in October 1995, Wofford wrote the highway patrol asking that the Violent Crime Support Unit, an elite panel of investigators from around the state, take a fresh look at the case. For several days in January 1996, four investigators huddled in Jefferson City with the file.

The panel realized that the four sets of latent fingerprints lifted from Judy's abandoned car had never been run through AFIS, the relatively new digital print database. When a state technician ran them, one print from the driver's side window matched the right index finger of a certain Lambert Anthony "Tony" Feldman.

"We'd never heard of Feldman," Bell says. "I remember when they printed out his criminal history. I could've held it up like this" — he lifts both fists to his bushy beard — "and it would've drug on the ground."

Feldman, a six-foot-two, 230-pound native of Hannibal, had been arrested in St. Louis for indecent exposure, unlawful use of a weapon and second-degree robbery. He'd also been arrested in Rolla for peeping on two women and first-degree assault.

Most ominously, he had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse in Iowa City. According to the police report, he'd shadowed a female college student across a footbridge on November 1, 1988. Creeping up behind her, he lifted her up with one hand under her crotch "as if to carry her off." With the other hand, he groped her breasts, saying "You have nice titties." The victim twisted around to look at Feldman, who then ran off. When police caught up with him minutes later, he said he was in town on business and merely out for a jog. The victim and some witnesses later identified him. He received a one-year jail sentence.

The state panel reviewing the Judy Spencer file concluded that "Mr. Feldman needs to be eliminated as a suspect in this case."

Investigators started tracing his whereabouts. They learned that, in the month Judy was killed, Feldman had been an attendant at the Dishman Mobil gas station in Rolla — about nineteen miles from her abandoned car.

But this triggered another question: Did Feldman, then 23, leave a print on Judy's window simply by helping her at the gas pump?

First, investigators looked at Judy's checkbook. It showed no checks written to Dishman in the month prior to her death. (She often paid for gas with checks; on her last night alive, for example, she filled up her tank in Salem and wrote a $10 check.)

Next, they drove to the Dishman station to see if Feldman worked a shift on the day of the murder. The owner, Don Dishman, checked his records. They didn't go back that far, he said.

Finally, in July 1996, the officers tracked down Feldman in Quincy, Illinois, where he was working at a soybean company. They took him to the police station and interrogated him.

Feldman confessed that "he had done some things in the past that he was not particularly proud of, but he had got his life together." He denied knowing Judy Spencer. He denied ever going to Salem or even Dent County. He denied ever owning a shotgun. (He did admit, though, to drilling a peephole in the wall of the women's restroom at the Dishman station.)

He could not explain his fingerprint on Judy's car. The gas station had been full-service at the time, so one sergeant asked if he might have "shut the door for a good-looking lady." Feldman said it wasn't routine, but he could have smudged the glass as he washed her windshield.

The sergeants had Feldman fill out a written questionnaire about the murder. They reviewed it and concluded it "did not show deception."

Yet Bell still harbored suspicions. He took all his evidence to Dent County's prosecutor, who declined to file charges against Feldman. Bell wasn't pleased, but he now concedes his case was circumstantial.

Bell resigned from his post as chief deputy in 1997 in search of better pay. He took up truck driving. For a whole decade, he seldom thought of Feldman.

Then, on the evening of October 2, 2008, a Quincy policeman found Feldman dead on his couch. He had shot himself in the chest with his own shotgun. (Police determined it wasn't the gun that killed Judy; he'd bought it in 2002.) The window of opportunity to charge Tony Feldman had closed forever.

But the theory of Feldman's guilt didn't die with him. In fact, it gained traction the next year with attorney Frank Carlson.

By that time, Carlson was defending Doc Nash against the murder charge, and learned from his private investigator about the Feldman fingerprint. Carlson thought that if he could shift the jury's suspicion over to Feldman, he could instill reasonable doubt and win a not-guilty verdict.

So Carlson set out to build a case against Feldman. To do that, he had to show Feldman interacted with Judy.

Carlson located a former Salem police dispatcher named Jenny Boxx. She recalled that, in the weeks before the murder, Judy had made several requests for a police escort to her car in the hospital parking lot because she was afraid of someone. Boxx said she recorded these requests in the dispatch log.

(That dispatch log has since been discarded, according to the Salem Police. An RFT analysis of Salem News archives suggests that Boxx, now 75, may be mistaken on her timeline. Four months before Judy's murder, a hospital worker was shot to death by her estranged husband in the lot. Employees had "security concerns" afterward, so the hospital board voted to hire a security guard starting January 1, 1982. Not a single person close to Judy remembers her expressing any fear about a stalker right before her murder.)

Carlson also claimed that three separate witnesses noticed Feldman and Judy drinking together in March 1982 at the popular Tower Inn — one of Judy's favorite hangouts. (Two of these witnesses have passed away; the third could not be reached for comment.)

However, Carlson's strategy never got a chance. Under Missouri's "direct-connection rule," defense lawyers can only point to a different suspect if evidence links that person to the crime. Just before trial, the judge ruled without explanation that the Feldman fingerprint was not directly connected to Judy's murder — even though it had been discovered on her car.

The direct-connection rule has its merits. Without it, the defense could recklessly point the finger at any third party, which might confuse the jury. But that's not what's happening here, Nash's new lawyers insist. Yes, Judy's car was seventeen miles from where her body was found — but they believe it's part of the crime scene. Even the prosecutor himself had claimed at trial that Nash ran the vehicle off the road before killing her.

The Bryan Cave attorneys argue that the judge's exclusion of the Feldman fingerprint "gutted" Nash's defense, and unfairly denied his right to a fair trial.

Former deputy Bell agrees. He signed an affidavit in support of Nash's innocence in September 2012, during an unsuccessful campaign for Dent County Sheriff.

"My personal opinion is that this investigation was shoddy from the start," Bell says. "They looked at Doc, the boyfriend, and they got tunnel vision and turned a blind eye to everyone else."

click to enlarge Various pieces of physical evidence preserved by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. - COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
  • COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
  • Various pieces of physical evidence preserved by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

On the night Judy's car was found on Route FF and towed from the scene, a highway patrol corporal noticed a man standing at a house about 100 yards away. The corporal walked over to speak to him.

It was Alfred "John" Heyer III, who lived in the house with his wife and son. Heyer acknowledged seeing the car that night, but didn't say much else.

Two and a half weeks later, Heyer, 25, went missing. His wife reported his absence on April 6. Investigators interviewed their neighbor, who noted how Heyer had stopped by several times to ask if she'd heard any chatter on her police scanner about the Judy Spencer case.

Heyer, it turned out, had moved to the Chicago area with another woman, without notifying family members or his employer. And for more than two decades, he stayed off the radar.

Twenty-five years later, a Dent County Sheriff's deputy named Steve Lawhead was working at the jail and looking for a challenge. He'd just spent 23 years in the military, fourteen of those as an undercover narcotics agent.

A bald man with glasses and tattooed forearms, Lawhead heard about the Judy Spencer murder and asked Sheriff Wofford for permission to work on it. He got the green light in August 2007 and requested all the highway patrol's files.

He soon learned that Sgt. Jamie Folsom at the highway patrol was already on the case. By coincidence, both men had served in the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command in Darmstadt, Germany.

"I thought, 'Oh, we'll work together great,'" says Lawhead. They had several meetings and planned for a joint investigation. But it quickly devolved into two parallel projects — and a virtual race. Each came to suspect his counterpart of withholding info.

By March 2008, as Folsom's unit was zeroing in on Doc Nash, Lawhead and his partner, deputy Mike Nivens, were focusing on Heyer.

They had good reason. Heyer's prints were now available because he'd been arrested for theft in Illinois. The deputies had asked a state lab to compare them to the prints lifted off Judy's car. On March 10, an analyst reported a match on the passenger side window. Heyer, too, had touched Judy's car.

The deputies called Heyer at his residence in Wheaton, Illinois, on March 28. Lawhead remembers his "gruff Chicago accent." According to the report, Heyer acknowledged that "if there was an abandoned car somewhere, he may have gone and looked inside of it." But he refused to meet with the deputies or give a DNA sample unless they had a court order or a warrant.

The deputies told Heyer they wished to eliminate him as a suspect. He responded, "If you want to eliminate me, hire a hitman to come up here and kill me, then you will eliminate me." Then he hung up.

Lawhead typed up a probable cause statement to arrest him. He took the print-out to Dent County Prosecutor Jessica Sparks, who was visiting his office, to solicit feedback.

Too late, she told him: She'd just charged Nash with Judy's murder.

"I was shocked," Lawhead tells RFT.

Yet when the deputies were ordered to cease their probe, Lawhead did not protest. He credits his training. "In the military, when you're told what to do, you just do it."

Lawhead resigned later that year and took a job with the Fort Leonard Wood police. He ran for Texas County Sheriff, but lost in the August primary. He put the Spencer murder behind him.

But prosecutor Sparks kept calling Lawhead to discuss the case, and her calls took on a bizarre tone. The evidence against Nash had been "tampered with," she said, and she feared Sgt. Folsom of the highway patrol had injected her with mind-altering drugs.

The Missouri Attorney General's office fielded complaints about Sparks, so they sent an investigator to Salem in April 2009. He learned that Sparks had become "obsessed" with the Spencer murder. She had failed to file 253 felonies and misdemeanors, he found, and her colleagues said she had turned "paranoid," "forgetful," "unfocused" and "dangerous" to those around her.

As the Nash case headed for trial, Sparks held meetings with Nash's defense attorney, Frank Carlson, who urged her to dismiss the murder charge — something she had the unilateral authority to do.

"I am at a loss what to do about this situation," Sparks' co-counsel, assistant attorney general Ted Bruce, wrote in a May 15 email. "You continue to meet with Mr. Carlson without my knowledge. ... The State's ability to get a fair trial has been significantly compromised ... I do not believe anyone can ethically assist in prosecuting this case with you, given your decisions and your beliefs about the evidence."

Sparks withdrew from the Nash prosecution on May 19. In a rare move, the state filed a quo warranto petition to remove her from office. She finally resigned that June — and took the Nash case file with her.

"This is very disturbing," Bruce e-mailed Carlson a week later. He felt sympathy for the prosecutor's emotional health, he wrote, but "she needs to return the file immediately."

Some of Nash's supporters believe, to this day, that a mentally ill Sparks was manipulated into filing the murder charge. Yet even if true, this would be irrelevant. Once Sparks withdrew, Ted Bruce became the sole prosecutor. He could have dismissed the charge had he considered it baseless. Instead, he pursued it. (Jessica Sparks could not be reached for comment.)

As for Lawhead, he got roped into the matter a third time in 2012 when Nash's attorneys at Bryan Cave asked for his insights into the case. He signed an affidavit for them, describing his findings on John Heyer.

"The biggest travesty of this whole investigation was that Mike and I were not allowed to continue," says Lawhead. "Everyone should've said, 'Let's put this warrant on hold and see how this other lead pans out.' Innocent people go to prison because investigations aren't thorough. Is that this kind of case? I don't know, but this case wasn't completed."

click to enlarge Donald "Doc" Nash, now a 73-year-old inmate at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • Donald "Doc" Nash, now a 73-year-old inmate at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri

Fewer than one percent of Missouri's 32,000 state prisoners are over 70 years old. Doc Nash, 73, is among them.

Since June 2010, he has served his life sentence at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. He sleeps in the wing for prisoners showing good conduct. When friends and family visit, he is allowed to see them in the flesh.

With a nervous bounce to his knee and an odor of cigarettes, Nash spoke to RFT for about five hours over three visits.

"Setting in here, I have relived my life so many times," he says, choking up. He insists today, as he did 34 years ago, that he loved Judy and didn't kill her.

Whether Nash has perfected this act, or blocked out the crime from his memory, or is speaking from the heart, he sounds genuine. Tears welling behind his glasses, he says, "What scares me is I'm gonna die in this place."

Nash has high cholesterol, an enlarged prostate, a hiatal hernia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Small pleasures buoy him, such as holding his wife's hand every other weekend and chocolate ice cream from the prison store.

His main fuel, he says, is the Bible.

"The good Lord got me where I couldn't run and I couldn't hide," he says. "He's watching over me. He's my savior and he's taking care of me in here."

Ironically, the Spencers believe that very same God put him there. Judy's oldest sister Jeanne Paris says that their father Kenneth always felt that when God wanted to reveal the truth, he would send a message. The DNA under Judy's fingernails, they believe, was that message.

But what if a new DNA finding exonerates Nash?

"That's crossed my mind," Paris says. "I would be the first one to apologize to him. But I think we all have reasons to believe what we believe. I would be very sorry, but that's not going to happen."

Nash's lawyers at Bryan Cave think it already has. As part of their habeas corpus petition, they hired a forensic lab in Virginia to test Judy's suede shoe, the one from which her killer pulled the shoelace. In June 2013, the lab detected a male's DNA profile. It did not match Doc Nash.

"This DNA evidence establishes that Nash is actually innocent of Judy Spencer's murder," they wrote in a legal brief.

But there's one problem with that finding. Trooper Gary Dunlap remembers crawling through the barbed wire fence on that March afternoon in 1982 at the Bethlehem School. He tells RFT he didn't wear gloves when bagging the shoe.

"We couldn't get fingerprints off of them, so what would've been the point?" he says. "At that time, we didn't know anything about DNA. It was really kind of primitive in those days." The unknown male DNA might belong to a patrolman, not the killer.

Still, the Bryan Cave team took their findings to federal court. The judges ultimately decided against Nash, ruling that the new DNA from the shoe was not in fact "new," because it could have been discovered before trial. But the judges dropped unusual hints of sympathy.

"The Court hopes that the State of Missouri may provide a forum, either judicial or executive, in which to consider the evidence that [Nash] may be actually innocent of the crime," wrote former U.S. District Judge Terry Adelman in March 2014. "The newly discovered DNA evidence suggests his case, at the very least, deserves further serious consideration."

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Nash's claims merited "serious consideration," but suggested that "the state court would be a more appropriate forum."

Last week, Nash's attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. They urged the justices to force the lower courts to acknowledge the new DNA from Judy's shoe and reconsider the petition.

Nash is largely oblivious to these legal wranglings. He gets most emotional on the subject of his schnauzer, Muppy, who died while he was locked up. "I just want to get home," he says.

Almost 34 years have passed since Judy Spencer was strangled and shot, her body dumped off Route 32. The case has consumed almost everyone who's touched it — police, prosecutors, defense attorneys.

But none more so than Doc Nash, who maintains his innocence, and the Spencer family, who fought so hard for a conviction. And so they all fight on, endlessly revisiting March 10, 1982, constantly struggling for justice — as each side defines it.

Judy Spencer's grave, at least, was peaceful on a recent January morning. In a cold cemetery just north of Salem, someone had left purple plastic flowers on her tombstone —- so many that they spilled from the bouquets, covering up her name.

See also: A Killing in the Hills

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at info.nphillips@gmail.com

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