Barry Beach, serving a 100 year prison sentence with no possibility of parole, has applied to the Montana Board of Pardons for clemency. If he gets what he wants then the Board will recommend to Governor Bullock that Beach be made eligible for release, having now served 30 years in prison for a 1983 crime he says he did not commit. Bullock could then accept or reject the recommendation.
An all-star lineup of politicians has written letters on Beach’s behalf including Conrad Burns, John Tester, Brian Schweitzer and John Bohlinger. Bullock’s duty as Attorney General was to argue in support of Beach’s conviction, but that doesn’t preclude him from now allowing Beach to be paroled. But this is all assuming that the Board gives Beach a favorable ruling. If the Board turns Beach down then it’s the end of the line for Barry. He will live out the rest of his life in prison unless he lives to the age of 118.
In 2011, a district Judge in Lewistown ordered Beach released after a hearing was held in which new doubt about his conviction was raised. Six months later the Supreme Court overturned the order and sent him back to jail. Beach took advantage of his freedom and started his own business, and otherwise lived out his brief respite without incident.
The doubts surrounding Beach’s conviction are well known to anyone who has followed the sizable amount of journalism on the case. The short story is that his conviction was based entirely on a confession, which he says was coerced by the policemen who had him in custody. There was no forensic evidence of any kind that tied Beach to the crime.
The Missoula Independent did a very thorough write-up a few years ago, which I encourage you to read. To summarize, in 1983 Beach was convicted of the murder of Kim Nees, a high school classmate. Beach was 17 at the time of the murder. There were many fingerprints and footprints found at the crime scene, which was a muddy river bank where Kim Nees’s body was found face down in shallow water not far from her truck. None of these prints matched Beach. There were eyewitnesses who told police investigators that they had seen a gang of women in the truck with Nees shortly before she was murdered.
Beach was arrested in Louisiana three years later, for a misdemeanor. While in custody, the police took his confession to four murders, three local murders and the Nees murder, which they learned about after calling up to Poplar Montana to ask local police about Beach. The three local Louisiana murders which Beach confessed to were later determined to have nothing to do with him because he hadn’t even been in the state at the time of their occurrence.
Beach has always claimed that his confession to the Nees murder, in which he admits to beating Nees with a wrench for rebuffing his sexual overtures, was coerced with deprivation, intimidation, threats of torture and the electric chair, and many deceptive promises made to him by the four officers who were present when they took the confession. The confession was taken in a notoriously corrupt Louisiana sheriff’s office. There was a tape recording of Beach’s confessions including his confession to the Kim Nees murder, but it vanished, as did all of the physical evidence collected at the crime scene, including items such as cigarette butts with unidentified fingerprints on them.
And then there was the prosecutor, the future Governor Marc Racicot who tried the case. In his opening statement to the jury, Racicot announced that he would soon be showing the jury a single pubic hair that had been discovered on the sweater of the victim and which had similarities to Beach’s hair. But Racicot never produced any such piece of evidence. Worse, he referenced the hair a second time, in his closing statement.
Racicot also called to the stand one of the the Louisiana cops who took Beach’s confession, an officer named Jay Via. Via testified that Beach’s Louisiana attorney was in the interrogation room when Beach confessed. But Beach’s attorney, upon hearing this (he was in Louisiana during the trial), denied it vehemently in a sworn affidavit, essentially accusing Racicot and Via of perpetrating a blatant lie into evidence.
Three local girls (two of whom had immediate relatives who were working in the Poplar police department at the time of the murder, including one who broke into the evidence room during the trial) were among the initial suspects, in part because they were known to hold a strong animus against the victim. In the years since, a number of locals in Poplar have come forward to say that they have heard first hand admissions of guilt by at least two of these women. These locals testified at the 2011 hearing that led to the release of Beach by district judge E. Wayne Phillips who presides in Lewistown.
Judge Phillips, you will appreciate, used to work for Tea Party wingnut Art Wittich when Wittich was counsel to GOP governor Stan Stevens. So Phillips is no bleeding heart, apparently, and might even be a Tea Partier.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has stated that Beach should remain in prison for the next 70 years because he confessed and was convicted, and thus is guilty. This has been the line out of the AG’s office since the early 2000s.
Nobody will ever know what took place on the night that Kim Nees was murdered, nor has Beach proved his innocence despite what his advocates might say. Innocence cannot be proven here, I suppose, unless one of the other suspects admits under oath or on video tape to having committed the murder.
But given the history of this case and the facts surrounding the trial, it’s hard to imagine that the Board of Pardons would not at least make a recommendation to the Governor that Beach’s sentence be restructured so that he can apply for parole. We should all be concerned with a case in which a 17 year old kid gets sent away for life with no possibility of parole, in which an a prosecutor with political ambitions presents lies to a jury to substantiate his case, in which a questionable confession is the sole piece of evidence, and in which much evidence was destroyed or simply disappeared.
This is Beach’s third try at clemency. The first time he represented himself. On his second try he was represented by pro bono attorneys from Centurion Ministries, an outfit which has freed over 100 wrongly convicted individuals, usually on DNA evidence but sometimes on false confessions. That was in 2006, and he sought a full pardon and a declaration of innocence. He lost. This time, he is simply seeking a commutation of his sentence to time served. We will see how he does.
Even if he had been proved guilty with overwhelming evidence, I might still support an opportunity for parole after 30 years of prison given his age at the time of the crime. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court no longer allows life without parole to be meted out to a minor, even in cases in which guilt is overwhelmingly obvious. But with the amount of doubt surrounding his conviction, justice probably requires Beach to be free now.
Fox apparently disagrees. I’d be interested to know how Racicot feels. All Racicot has ever said to the press is that he has “no doubt that Barry Beach is guilty as charged.” That was in 2007. He has not specifically ever addressed the size of the sentence, and whether it might be a tad too heavy given the case history. My guess is that we won’t hear from Racicot on this issue. Because he probably knows, in his heart, that parole eligibility would be proper; and yet to express support for it would be to admit that he has doubts in his head about what he did in the courtroom in 1983.