Barry Beach freed after 29 years to await new Montana trial
Barry Beach has walked out of a Montana jail a free man for the first time in nearly 29 years, pending a review of his conviction in the 1979 murder of a woman on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, a killing he once confessed to in shocking detail.
A tearful Beach, 49, emerged from the Fergus County jail in Poplar and into the arms of family members and supporters Wednesday after District Judge E. Wayne Phillips ordered him released on his own recognizance pending a final ruling on a new trial.
"I've spent 29 years in prison fighting for this moment. Rest assured that I will continue to fight for justice," Beach told Montana's KRTV television in Lewistown.
The state's attorney general is appealing Phillips' ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, which is likely to take at least several months.
"We have an obligation to defend a murder conviction rendered by a Montana jury against a man who confessed" to the most serious of crimes, said a statement from the attorney general's office. The original prosecution team in the case included Marc Racicot, Montana's former governor and the chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Bush administration.
Beach was sentenced to 100 years in prison in 1983 for the bludgeoning death of 17-year-old Kimberly Nees. Beach, while living in Louisiana, had confessed to local detectives who were questioning him about another murder investigation in that state.
Beach told the detectives that he struck Nees with a wrench and a tire iron after she refused his sexual advances.
But since then, several other witnesses have come forward suggesting that Nees was killed by a group of angry girls, whose crime was then covered up by reservation police.
Beach's attorneys have pointed out that a bloody handprint on Nees' truck and blood on a towel found not far from the murder scene did not match the defendant's, and there were problems with laboratory analysis of a hair found at the scene.
"This is all about justice for Kimberly. This is all about finding that peace of mind for her family, because I created a lie by mistake that her family put their faith into, and I've got to correct that," Beach told reporters. "I can't change the confession, but I can help bring justice to Kim Nees, and that's the only thing I can do."
Beach's confession has long been the centerpiece of the case. But he now says it was coerced by police who told him he would be sent to the electric chair if he did not admit the crime.
The original tape was lost or erased before the trial, but in a detailed transcript Beach describes having hitched a ride with Nees at the end of a day during which he'd been drinking. When his truck got stuck in the sand, he exploded in fury and walked back to town.
He told Louisiana detectives that he struck her with a wrench and a tire iron after she refused his sexual advances.
"She was covering her head with her arms and screaming," he said. When she stopped moving, he said, he checked her pulse, which weakened and then stopped. "I stood up again and I said, 'Oh my God, what have I done?' And I took a minute to think and I realized I had killed her."
Prosecutors said Beach's confession matched several details of the case that weren't publicly known, but defense lawyers said it was also a mismatch on several points.
Doubt has persisted for years. Even Nees' sister, Pam Nees, told the Montana Board of Prisons and Parole in 2007 that she didn't think Beach was guilty.
"I honestly believe that Barry did not kill my sister," she told the board then in a statement. "I feel Barry's pain and his family's pain, also. Finding the truth will set Barry free."
But the board, after reviewing the evidence and testimony, including defense claims about purported mishandling of the case, concluded that Beach had been rightfully convicted and was not entitled to clemency or parole.
"Except for the color of clothing Kimberly Nees wore, nothing from the confession conflicted with the actual crime scene," the board said in its ruling. "It is apparent to us that it would have been impossible to create so detailed and so correct a false confession."
The board also noted that no fingerprints of any women supposedly involved in the attack were found in the back of Nees' pickup truck. "No one is entitled to a perfect murder trial, but Mr. Beach had a very fine one," the board concluded.
The most compelling new evidence presented to the judge in the latest appeal seemed to come from Fort Peck residents who said that Nees death was the result of a fight among teenage girls. One woman testified that she overheard partying teenagers and then the cries of girls beating another girl near the location where Nees' body was found.
All the women linked to that version of events have denied involvement, but the judge found the combination of witness testimony and possible mishandling of evidence was enough to warrant a new trial, the ruling that prosecutors are now appealing.
Much of the impetus for the new trial came from the work of the nonprofit group Centurion Ministries and a volunteer organization called Montanans for Justice, which have publicly campaigned for Beach's release and pointed out flaws in the case against him.
"There is not one piece of physical evidence or eyewitness testimony that links Barry Beach to this crime," the group said on its website.
Prominent Billings, Mont. businessman James Ziegler, a former Yellowstone County commissioner who is active in prison ministries, met Beach at the state prison in 1984 and has worked to help him since then. He told the court he would aid and oversee the former prisoner during his release.
"From what I know of Barry, I think he’s eager to get out after all this time that he’s been away from us and become a good, productive citizen," Ziegler told the Billings Gazette.
Beach, who wore a conservative blue shirt and tie during the court hearing, emerged from the jail wearing a Washington Redskins football jersey bearing the number 28, representing, he told the Gazette, the 28 years and 11 months he'd spent behind bars.
"Thank God. I can't say that enough," he said. "I praise the Lord."
-- Kim Murphy in North Dakota
Photo: Barry Beach emerged from the county jail in Lewistown, Mont., Wednesday after more than 29 years in prison. Credit: Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette