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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