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Trail To Nowhere 

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

Page 5 of 5

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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