Posted: September 29, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Barry Beach Tries for Clemency, Again

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.

13 comments

  1. James Conner

    One of your finest posts. I have yet to meet a prosecutor in a high profile case who will admit to a mistake, or believes that new information merits a new look at a case. Their official position always seems to be “we never make mistakes,” and they seem to believe that it’s better for ten innocent men to swing from the gallows than for one guilty man to go free. I don’t know whether Barry Beach is guilty, but I do think that the “justice” he’s getting is not the justice I would want for myself.

  2. Montana Mom

    Thank you, Cowgirl, for this post. This is a very good summary, and it makes me sick. Does anyone know – can letters from us outsiders be sent on his behalf to the clemency board?

  3. W.H.

    Seems to me this board should be made aware that the public is watching their decision very closely. They shouldn’t be operating in the dark.

    Montana Board of Pardons and Parole
    1002 Hollenbeck Road
    Deer Lodge, MT 59722
    Phone: 406.846.1404

        • Norma Duffy

          Phone texting gibberish, while fishing, drinking a root beer, and BSing with good friends. It was about the time I had to lay the phone down and catch a two pounder for dinner. It happens occasionally Craig, while trying to real in a fish while keeping the family dog from jumping in the water to retrieve it for me.

          What are you the gibberish police?

  4. Drunks for Aguare

    Poor Barry Beach. A victim of southern justice. I just finished reading “The Devil in the Grove”, which is a great summary of southern law.

    Marc Racicot should be serving time for his role in deregulation.

  5. Moorcat

    I have read as much as I can online about this case and I want to say that Cowgirl’s article on this issue is very well written. I have to commend her on not stating opinion as fact.

    I, too, agree that the punishment for this particular crime seems excessive. Given that his punishment is illegal by today’s law, his sentence should – at the very least – be revisited.

  6. Publius II

    What sayeth Raciot the ‘Rascal’ now, especially after de-reg and other questionable activities, and I’m puzzled how I voted for him TWICE. And if you’ve ever lived and worked – as I have – in Louisiana, justice for Northerner ain’t, especially when the corrupt sheriff just considered Beach another ‘Yankee’ trophy. Perhaps Raciot should be the recipient of the South’s ‘hospitality’ himself>?

    • Queen City Dem

      The post raises a few questions: who was the judge that issued the original sentence? Why cant Beach appeal his sentence (not just his guilt) to the supreme court? If hes so sure the kilers are the gang of girls, Has he sought to get fingerprints or dna from any of the girls who are suspected of having framed him? Have they been given lie detector tests? Has Beach been given one? And who was the county attorney (racicots boss)? What’s he got to say on the subject? How could Beach not take the stand at his own trial to tell his story a out what bappened during his interrogation? This is a good post but there is another side. Did Barry ever make conflicting statements about whether his confession was coerced or not? (I e heard he did).

  7. A. Jennifer Pedro

    Great article! Just wanted to point out that Barry was actually out for 18 months, (November, 2011 to May, 2013).
    During that time, Barry spoke all over the state of Montana at various places, including schools, churches, on the reservations, and several other locations.

    In addition to starting his own business, he worked in construction, sold his artwork and became the head of maintenance at the Clock Tower Inn. He was also a volunteer at the Special Olympics in 2012.

    Barry quickly & eagerly brought himself up to speed of today’s world and accomplished so much in the short time he was out. He truly became a productive member of society. And he did this without bitterness or anger of the justice system, as he said he didn’t have time for that, he just wanted to live what life he had left and to be there for his mother. He also promised that if the Supreme Court ruled against the new trial, ordering him back to prison, that he would voluntarily turn himself in and not run. Sadly, that was exactly how it all played out. With even knowing he may never see his freedom again, he kept his word.

    Thank you for your article and taking the time to inform others of this very unfortunate case.

  8. Shannon Skiff

    Barry passed numerous lie detector tests, but they are not admissible in court. Mr. Beach has numerous supporters all over the United States as well as other countries. This case is gaining a lot of negative attention for the state of Montana. I hope the parole board will do the right thing and allow Barry a new trial. It’s very doubtful Marc Racicot or any of the others involved in prosecuting Mr. Beach will ever admit any errors they have made. Can you imagine sitting in prison for 30 years, knowing you are innocent? Barry continues to fight for his freedom with new supporters every day. His faith in God has not wavered and continues to grow stronger daily. This man needs to be set free and justice needs to be found for Kim Nees and her family.