Barry Beach says he's had it with Montana courts; may look to federal justice system

2014-06-16T16:16:00Z 2014-06-20T16:24:14Z Barry Beach says he's had it with Montana courts; may look to federal justice systemBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Convicted murderer Barry Beach, whose latest attempt to commute his 100-year sentence was rejected yet again by the state Parole Board last week, said Monday he may give up on Montana’s justice system and go to federal court to pursue his quest for release.

“To be quite honest, we’re pretty tired of getting slapped in the face by the state of Montana on stuff where we’re clearly right,” he said in a telephone interview from the State Prison. “I think it may be futile to make any more efforts within the state (justice system) of Montana.”

Beach, 52, maintains he is innocent of murdering Kimberly Nees, of Poplar, in 1979, and has been trying for 30 years to overturn his conviction or have it commuted.

Beach won a temporary victory in 2011, when a state district judge ruled Beach should get a new trial based on new evidence and freed him from prison pending the trial.

But the Montana Supreme Court in May 2013 overturned that ruling on a 4-3 decision, sending Beach back to prison to serve out the rest of his 100-year sentence, with no possibility for parole.

While Beach cannot be paroled under his current sentence, he does get credit for “good time,” reducing his actual sentence to about 52 years. He would be released in October 2036, at age 74.

After the Supreme Court decision, Beach asked the state Board of Pardons and Parole to commute his sentence so he could be considered for parole, arguing that circumstances had changed since the board in 2007 rejected his earlier request to pardon him or commute his sentence.

Last Thursday, a three-member panel of the board rejected that request, saying Beach had not presented any new compelling evidence and that circumstances hadn’t really changed.

While the governor ultimately decides whether a prisoner’s sentence can be commuted, Gov. Steve Bullock cannot consider Beach’s request, even though Bullock sent a letter to the board this year supporting commutation of Beach’s sentence.

State law says in a non-death-penalty case, the Board of Pardons and Parole must recommend a commutation before the governor can consider one.

Peter Camiel, a Seattle lawyer representing Beach, said last week Beach could challenge his sentence in state court or possibly challenge the parole board’s ruling. Federal court also is an option, he added.

“All of these things are just things we need to take a look at,” he said.

Beach said he’ll be meeting with Camiel this week, but that he’s hesitant to continue his case in Montana courts and is “very disappointed” by the parole board decision and its rationale.

Beach, who has 17 when the murder occurred, had pointed to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said mandatory, no-parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. Parole board members said Beach was not sentenced under a mandatory law, therefore the Supreme Court decision is irrelevant.

Parole board members focused on the fact that Beach will not admit he is guilty of the crime, and therefore cannot be truly rehabilitated.

“Mr. Beach’s failure to achieve the most basic step of accepting responsibility and accountability continues to trump the other positive steps that he may have made,” wrote Board Chairman Mike McKee.

The board also dismissed the outpouring of support for Beach’s commutation, saying most of the nearly 500 supporters knew little about the facts of the crime or the case.

Beach said the board’s claim that his supporters don’t know the details of the case is simply wrong.

“I don’t know how you can say (former state Supreme Court Justice) Jim Nelson doesn’t know the facts of the case,” Beach said. “He’s very familiar with the facts of the case. Gov. Bullock? He was the attorney general who brought me back to prison. Surely he knows the facts of the case.”

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