HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock took the unusual step Wednesday of writing a letter supporting parole for convicted murderer Barry Beach, telling the Board of Pardons and Parole it should focus not on whether Beach is guilty or innocent, but whether he’s a good candidate for parole.
Bullock’s letter, issued late Wednesday, comes just six days before the board will hold a hearing on whether to consider commuting Beach’s 100-year, no-parole sentence so he could be paroled.
“The reasons for maintaining Mr. Beach’s 100-years-without-parole sentence at taxpayer expense diminish with each passing year,” Bullock wrote.
Bullock, who would decide whether to commute Beach’s sentence if the Parole Board recommends it, said Beach already has shown he is capable of living a “productive life and respecting society’s rules,” when he was out of prison for 18 months, from late 2011 to May 2013, while awaiting a possible new trial.
Beach was sent back to prison in May 2013 when the Montana Supreme Court, on a 4-3 decision, overturned a lower-court ruling that had granted Beach a new trial and freed him while awaiting the trial.
Beach had spent 18 months living in Billings, where he had a job, rented a home and had support from people in the community.
Beach’s quest to overturn his conviction and gain his freedom has garnered nationwide publicity and the support of prominent political figures in Montana, including former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Beach was convicted in 1984 for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees near Wolf Point. Beach has long proclaimed his innocence, but the 2013 Montana Supreme Court decision closed the door on his attempt to overturn his conviction.
Last September, Beach’s attorneys took a new tack, asking the state Board of Pardons and Parole to commute his sentence so he could be considered for parole.
Next Tuesday, a three-member panel of the board will hold a hearing on Beach’s request and whether to order an investigation into the case. If the board decides not to proceed with the case, he would remain in prison, and Bullock would have no opportunity to decide whether to commute his sentence.
Fern Johnson, executive director of the board, said Wednesday that Bullock’s letter would be considered along with other letters submitted for or against Beach’s petition.
Bullock’s letter said he was taking an “unusual step” that was a “departure from standard practice,” but “there is, as you know, nothing standard about this case.”
He noted that Beach has served more than 30 years in prison for his crime, which was committed while he was a juvenile, and that he should have “the opportunity for rehabilitation outside of prison.”
Bullock said if the board decides to forward a recommendation of clemency, “I will carefully consider that recommendation.”
Bullock also told the board that he respects its job to “exercise your independent judgment,” but that he felt it was important that the board understand his position on the high-profile case.
The board’s seven members are appointed for staggered terms by the governor. Bullock has appointed or reappointed five of the board’s current members.
Of the three-member panel that will consider Beach’s petition, only one has been appointed by Bullock.