A twist in the case of Barry Beach


Update, November 2016: This past spring, the Montana legislature passed a new law, giving the governor — rather than the state parole board —  final authority to grant clemency to prisoners. Governor Bullock has now granted Beach clemency, saying that regardless of his guilt or innocence, he had served enough time — more than thirty years. The now-retired district judge whose grant of a new trial was overturned by the Montana Supreme Court said that during his 18 months of freedom, Beach had shown himself reformed, and as quoted by the Missoulian, “Isn’t that the goal of the American justice system?” See more details in these news accounts from the Missoulian and the Billings Gazette.

I’ve written before about the case of Barry Beach, convicted in Montana for the 1979 murder of a teenage girl in a small northeastern Montana town. Beach, then a teenager himself, argued that his conviction was based on a false, coerced confession, and after serving 30 years, sought a new trial. The trial judge agreed and he was freed for 18 months—renting an apartment, holding a job, and finding support in a new community. The Montana Supreme Court then reversed that decision, denying Beach a new trial and sending him back to prison.

Changing tack, Beach and his legal team are now seeking to have his sentence of 100 years without the possibility of parole commuted — that is, converted to life with the possibility of parole — so that he can seek parole. The case will be heard by a panel of the state Board of Pardons and Parole next week, which can deny the request or make a recommendation to Governor Steve Bullock to commute. The twist? The Missoulian reports that Governor Steve Bullock has now written the Board, urging it to recommend clemency. The article fails to note — because here in Montana, we all know — that Governor Bullock was the state Attorney General who opposed Beach’s request for a new trial and successfully argued for reversal on appeal. He writes that the Board should focus not on guilt or innocence, but on whether Beach is a good candidate for parole, saying “The reasons for maintaining Mr. Beach’s 100-years-without-parole sentence at taxpayer expense diminish with each passing year.”

I know the Governor and admire him. He was wrong as AG, but he’s right now. Beach’s sentence should be commuted so he can be considered for parole, and he should be paroled. There is evidence pointing to other killers; unfortunately, it will probably never be tested in court, meaning justice may be incomplete. But even incomplete justice does not justify injustice.

(Photo: Montana State Capitol)