Montana judge frees Barry Beach pending homicide retrial

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A judge in Montana yesterday released Barry Beach after 28 years and eleven months behind bars. Beach confessed to a 1979 killing but has since maintained his innocence and now he's been granted a new trial.

Yesterday saw the state try a last-minute appeal to overturn District Judge E. Wayne Phillips's decision a few weeks prior to grant Beach a new trial. Phillips rejected that, and also declined a motion to stay Beach's bail hearing pending an appeal against the new trial to the Montana Supreme Court. The state sought a bond of $250,000, but he was released on his own recognizance on the basis he has no money and has already served more time than people with similar convictions.

The case revolves around the murder of seventeen-year-old Kim Nees. The crime went unsolved until police arrested Beach for another offence and he confessed. No other evidence links Beach to the crime and he says his confession — in which he describes trying to kiss schoolmate Nees, being fought off, and hitting her with a tire iron and wrench — was coerced. Rumours have always abounded that a group of girls beat Nees to death near Poplar on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Beach was convicted in 1984 of deliberate homicide. A 100-year prison term was handed down. The retrial will now have to focus upon a typed transcript of Beach's disputed confession with the original audio tape missing. There is no DNA evidence, and one of the points for retrial was local police making mistakes in how they treated the scant evidence from the scene at the time.

Beach and supporters accuse several women of being behind the murder, who all deny involvement. However, as the years have gone by friends, family, and colleagues of these women have told of confessions describing a gang fight that went too far and the court heard this summer from a woman who was a youngster at the time of hearing shrill cries from a girl-on-girl attack. The judge called this "extraordinarily credible and believable". At least one of the accused girls has expressed disappointment at not being asked to defend her innocence at the hearing.

Beach's case was statewide news in 2007 when the parole board held an unusual multiday hearing to consider sentence commutation or a pardon for Beach, which was ultimately rejected. Case prosecutor Marc Racicot — who went on to be state governor and have a national political career — told the board of his certainty in Beach's guilt. The Montana Supreme Court's current chief justice and one-time Attorney General Mike McGrath said at the time "I am grateful that the board has, in its own words 'laid this matter to rest.'"

Four points were raised by the state yesterday at appeal attempting to deny a retrial. All four were dismissed. The first was that Beach had little chance of success, the second that the court had not considered all the evidence, the third that the defence had no DNA evidence, and the fourth that there had been no breach of the Constitution.

Beach will stay with James Ziegler, who has visited him in prison, by his own count, between eight and ten times a year since 1984. Ziegler said he and his wife would be "honored" to have Beach and will help him find work. He has been ordered by the court to report any breaches of bail conditions by Beach, who was freed 26 years to the day since he entered Montana State Prison.

Even if reconvicted, Beach could be sentenced to time already served and remain a free man. "We must not forget that Kim Nees was brutally murdered," Judge Phillips said. When ordering the retrial, he noted that he was not fully convinced of Beach's innocence.