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)


Update: Barry Beach — wrongfully convicted, or wrongfully freed, and what’s next

OldMTPrisonToday, an update on Barry Beach, the Montana man convicted of a murder — as a teenager, of another teenager — based solely on a confession he says was coerced. Beach denies the crime, but was sentenced to 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole. A District Judge granted him a new trial based on new evidence, but earlier this year, the Montana Supreme Court reversed that decision and ordered Beach back to prison. (See my previous posts.)  Beach, who’d been living and working in Billings, with sponsorship and without trouble for 18 months, turned himself in and returned to prison.

Now, the Billings Gazette reports that Beach is asking the governor to remove the restriction against parole — a form of commutation or reduction in sentence — so he can ask the parole board for release. He’s served nearly 30 years. As I’ve discussed previously,  the Supreme Court in  2012 struck down mandatory life without parole for teenagers, although a sentencing judge can still impose LWOP if he or she finds it appropriate. Beach argues that his 100 year sentence without possibility of parole was the equivalent of LWOP. He points out that he was a good citizen during his 18 months of release, showing that he has rehabilitated himself, and has the ability to reintegrate into society. Many community leaders, including present and former U.S. Senators, support his request.

Helena_capitolThe wrinkle? Governor Steve Bullock — whom I know personally and think well of — was the Attorney General who appealed the grant of a new trial. He says he won’t comment until the Boards of Pardons and Parole reviews the case and sends him a recommendation, and of course, that’s the right response.

I think it beyond unfortunate that there will be no new trial. Beach will always have this conviction in his past. And the family of Kimberly Nees, the victim — and the NE Montana community where both lived — will never have the chance to know whether Beach’s confession to police in Louisiana was coerced, and whether the other suspects might in fact be the real killers.

Justice isn’t always easy.


Barry Beach — a plea for exoneration denied

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about Barry Beach, a Montana man convicted of deliberate homicide in 1984 for the 1979 a murder of a teenage girl — a high school classmate of his — a murder he says he didn’t commit. He confessed to the homicide in 1983 in Louisiana, but has long claimed that the confession was coerced. In December 2011, with the assistance of Jim McCloskey and Centurion Ministries, whose mission “is to vindicate and free from prison those individuals in the United States and Canada who are factually innocent of the crimes for which they have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned for life or death,” Beach was released from prison and granted a new trial. Some of the victim’s relatives believe him innocent; others disagree.

The State of Montana appealed that ruling, and in mid May, the Montana Supreme Court held 4-3 that the district judge had erred in finding that Beach had proven the standards for a new trial. In an AP interview after the reversal, the judge, now retired, said he fears he’s done a “soul-wrenching injustice” to Beach, allowing him to hope for permanent freedom after 27 years behind bars.

Beach turned himself in. Although the Department of Corrections would not confirm where he would be sent in the latest story about the case, from the Helena Independent Record, he is likely to be returned to the Montana State Prison.

I often beseech fiction writers to use accounts of real-life events to reach for the human truth behind the headlines, and use it to deepen characterization and motive, and influence plot. This case brims with examples.

Update: In this June 18 report from the AP, Beach — now back in the Montana State Prison — says the judge who freed him should have no regrets, and that his year and a half “outside” made him value even more what he is fighting for.


Wrongfully convicted – or wrongfully released?

The headlines read like fiction: Man released after decades in prison. All across Montana, people are debating the case of Barry Beach, released in early December after nearly 29 years in prison for the 1979 murder of a 17-year-old girl–a murder he says he didn’t commit.

Beach has fought years for a new trial, arguing that a confession he gave police in Louisiana a few years after the murder was coerced, and that new evidence shows Kim Nees was murdered by a group of teenage girls, at a party spot on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northwest Montana. His 2007 request for pardon or parole was denied. In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ordered a hearing to allow him to present newly discovered evidence. That hearing was finally held in November 2011, and included testimony by a woman who as a ten-year-old, heard the murder occur. District Judge Wayne Phillips ordered a new trial.

Beach’s cause has been supported by many Montanans, as well as Centurion Ministries and the Innocence Project. Beach, who’s white, is also supported by an Indian-owned newspaper in Fort Peck.

Sadly, the young reporter, who’s interest in the story was spurred by a 2008 story on Dateline, has reportedly been threatened because of his articles investigating the case.

Beach was released without bond, a decision the state opposed, although Judge Phillips pointed out that a man who went to prison at 21 would not have the assets to post bond. He did impose a long list of conditions.

A new trial date hasn’t been set yet. I suspect pretrial publicity may make a fair trial impossible in Roosevelt County, population just under 11,000, where the murder occurred, and that the trial will be moved to another county.

Life outside prison isn’t going to be easy, though Beach says he’s enjoying it. I’ll try to post updates on major events. Murder cries for justice–and so, if proven, does wrongful conviction.

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