HELENA — An attorney for a Montana State Prison inmate who is serving a 100-year sentence without the possibility of parole for a murder he says he didn’t commit is asking the state parole board to recommend he receive a parole hearing.
It’s the latest effort by attorney Peter Camiel to win freedom for Barry Beach, who has served nearly 30 years in prison after being convicted in 1983 of the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees in Poplar.
Camiel sent an application for commutation, or a reduction of sentence, to members of the state Board of Pardons and Parole on Wednesday on Beach’s behalf.
It asks the board to recommend that Gov. Steve Bullock commute Beach’s sentence to eliminate the parole restriction.
Camiel noted the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that life sentences without parole can’t be given to juvenile offenders. Beach was 17 at the time of Nees’ death. Camiel argues that a 100-year sentence without the possibility of parole equates to a life sentence.
The application includes 200 letters of support, including letters from Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
Beach has long argued that the confession used to convict him was coerced by police officers in Louisiana. No other evidence links him to the crime, backers say.
The parole board in 2007 denied Beach a recommendation for a gubernatorial pardon.
In 2011, a Lewistown judge ruled there was enough new evidence in the case to justify a new trial and he released Beach on his own recognizance.
For 18 months he worked in Billings, had a house and spoke to at-risk youths, church groups and civic organizations.
Bullock, who was then attorney general, appealed District Judge Wayne Phillips’ ruling and the Montana Supreme Court overturned his decision on a 4-3 vote. Beach was returned to prison in June.
Tester’s letter said the investigation, trial and conviction of Beach raised many questions.
“Mr. Beach has served almost 30 years in prison. The many questions around this case, new evidence that has been called into question, and the time already served in prison suggest that serious consideration be given to commutation,” Tester wrote.
Camiel argued the 18 months Beach spent as a free man in Billings demonstrated that he is rehabilitated.
“During this time he gained additional supporters because of his behavior and attitude while living and working in the community,” Camiel said, adding that new evidence about the crime that was not available to the parole board in 2007 casts even more doubt on the conviction.
Burns felt the same way.
“He re-integrated very positively and productively into our community, and serves as an excellent example of the power of rehabilitation and the strength of faith and renewal,” Burns wrote.
“If you’re going to have a process for commutation on the books,” Camiel said. “I can’t think of a better case to apply it to.”