For 28 years Barry Beach woke up every morning in a prison cell. Stark, flickering lights lit the drab space that confined him, and the rumbling echo of cell doors slamming punctuated his 100-year sentence without the possibility of parole.
He remembers hearing the cell door close for the first time Jan. 4, 1983 — a sound that, he says, still haunts him today, six months after being released from prison.
Beach, now 50, was 21 when he was convicted for the 1979 murder of 17-year-old Kimberly Nees on the Fort Peck Reservation.
He served 28 years of his sentence in seven different prisons in four states for a crime, he says, he did not commit. Beach maintains his confession was coerced and that there is no evidence that links him to Nees’ murder.
“I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but I had to accept it,” Beach said. “I had to truly accept my life as it was. Then, amidst the chaos, I accepted my situation and God, then found a calmness within me.
“But, being calm inside doesn’t mean I wasn’t still fighting. It was a battle. Ninety percent of my days were spent fighting for my case. But every day seemed like a hundred years.”
His day came on Nov. 23, 2011, when District Judge E. Wayne Phillips, of Fergus County, ordered a new trial for Beach, stating there was enough evidence presented in an August 2010 hearing to raise doubts about Beach’s conviction.
A few weeks later, Beach was released to former Yellowstone County commissioner and longtime Beach supporter Ziggy Ziegler and his wife, Stella, of Billings, whom he now lives with.
“Barry was prepared for that day, beyond ready and looking forward to it,” Ziegler said Friday. “He has a lot of catching up to do with life. And he will. But, there is a big target on Barry’s back right now.”
Since his release six months ago, Beach’s morning routine hasn’t changed much from his morning prison routine. He wakes up by 6 a.m., reads Bible scripture, prays and then washes up. Only now, he is free to walk out the door.
Beach has had dozens of speaking engagements across Montana about his faith, his time behind bars and his positive outlook on his future.
“I don’t define my life by defeats,” Beach said. “It’s what you do with the defeats and the small blessings that come along right when you feel like giving up.”
People from across the nation sent Beach care packages to help him get on his feet containing items like socks, underwear, clothes, shaving kits, an atlas and working gloves.
He uses the gloves at his full-time construction job, his personal handyman business and the Ziegler house when he helps with outside chores.
In his spare time, Beach said he has most enjoyed getting back to his American Indian cultural roots doing bead and leather work and attending native healing ceremonies and sweat lodges.
He spends many evenings and weekend days with his mother, Roberta Clincher, of Laurel.
The hardest and scariest adjustment to the outside, Beach said, has been the financial aspect. The only things he owns, aside from the tools he has purchased one by one for his construction work, are the things he has been given.
A Ford Ranger pickup truck inherited from a family member gets him to work and has been, at times, his sanctuary.
Just days out of prison, Beach said it took what seemed like an eternity to pump fuel into his pickup.
“I had no idea how to use the new electronic pumps,” he said. “I was afraid to go inside because I have been ordered to stay out of establishments that sell alcohol. But, with time, I figured it out.”
Before his release, Beach had already obtained a driver’s license, drafted a business plan, arranged for prepaid debit cards and lined up jobs.
But his goals extend beyond the immediate future. Beach wants to establish his business and have a place of his own. He wants to build a foundation in the community and be recognized for something other than being a convicted murderer.
And he wants to no longer wake up at night from nightmares of being hauled away to the "hole" — an area for solitary confinement — where he would sometimes purposely get sent to to get away from the struggles of prison life.
Beach said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. A loud noise, like a door slamming, triggers it. There have been many occasions when Beach will wake up from a nightmare and it takes him several minutes to remember that he isn’t in prison.
“Nothing about prison is right,” Beach said. “But, there are certain prison stories that are prison stories, and that’s where they belong.”
Beach was arrested on Jan. 4, 1983, on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Monroe, La., for buying liquor for a relative. He was living there with his estranged father and stepmother.
Detectives were on a manhunt for a suspect in the abduction and murders of the three young Louisiana women. When homicide detective Sgt. Jay Via ran a background check on Beach, he learned about the unsolved Montana murder of Kim Nees in Beach’s hometown of Poplar.
On Jan. 7, 1983, after three days of questioning, Beach confessed to the murder of Nees to Via and Commander Alfred Calhoun of the Oachita Parish Sheriff’s Office in Monroe County, La.
He also confessed to involvement in the three Louisiana murders, which were later determined to be false confessions. Beach was never charged with the crimes.
Beach was convicted of deliberate homicide on May 11, 1984, for the murder of Nees that took place on the night of June 16, 1979.
In 1994 and 2007, the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole denied Beach's petition for executive clemency. Several other attempts to appeal his conviction had failed.
On December 8, 2011, Phillips released Beach without bond on his own recognizance while he awaits a new trial. In the meantime, prosecutors have appealed Beach’s release, on the grounds of his confession, and have asked that the Montana Supreme Court reverse Phillips’ order for a new trial, sending Beach back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.