LEWISTOWN — One month shy of spending 29 years behind bars for murder, Barry Beach was released Wednesday pending a new trial in the killing of a 17-year-old Poplar girl.
Beach, now 49, was ordered released on his own recognizance by Fergus County District Judge E. Wayne Phillips. He emerged a few a minutes later from the Fergus County jail, where supporters insisting Beach had been wrongfully convicted erupted into cheers.
“This picture is proof that the United States of America still believes in right and wrong,” Beach said, gesturing at the crowd. “And when there’s a wrong, you correct it.”
Beginning to weep, he hugged his sister Marise Headdress and then gestured with his hand that she was knee-high the last time the two freely embraced, when she was 5 years old.
Beach’s release came just weeks after Phillips ruled that there was enough new evidence in the 1979 murder of Kim Nees to justify a new trial for Beach.
Beach had been sentenced to serve 100 years.
Nees was found bludgeoned to death at a popular party location on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. A few years later, Beach made a confession to police in Louisiana, which he has insisted over the years was coerced. New testimony in the case suggests a group of girls killed Nees, according to Beach’s defense attorneys, who say there is also other evidence supporting Beach’s innocence.
Phillips said his granting Beach a new trial was not to be construed as a presumption of innocence. Rather, it was a statement that enough new evidence in the case had surfaced that it was reasonable to believe a jury could rule in Beach’s favor.
The state Attorney General’s Office is adamant Beach’s conviction was correct. State prosecutors filed an eleventh-hour motion with the District Court to stay Beach’s bail hearing. The office also has filed an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court concerning Phillips’ ruling for a new trial.
Phillips denied the stay of the bail hearing, disagreeing with each argument presented by the state. The judge noted that the motion filed by the Attorney General’s Office was never officially delivered to the judge or Beach’s defense attorneys before the bail hearing was to take place.
State prosecutors chose not to make their case in person Wednesday, opting instead to speak by video conference from Helena.
Beach is now headed to Billings, where he will live with Stella and James “Ziggy” Ziegler until his trial. Phillips said James Ziegler’s experience working with people on probation and parole, as well as his familiarity with Beach, was key in Beach being released on his own recognizance.
Ziegler said he met Beach in October 1984 at a religious activities center at the Montana State Prison. Ziegler has been active in prison ministry since 1978. Beach had signed up to be part of a three-day religious retreat at the prison years ago. The men had been working together since then.
“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,” said Ziegler, a former Yellowstone County commissioner. He and his wife own the downtown restaurant Stella’s Kitchen & Bakery.
Ziegler asked the court to give Beach time to adjust to a world that he hasn’t been a part of since he was a teenager.
After years of being locked up, Beach is going to have to get used to being free again, said Ziegler, who indicated that he would give Beach a job at his restaurant or find him appropriate work somewhere else after a few weeks.
“My wife and I would be honored to have Barry come live with us,” he said.
A few blocks from the Fergus County Courthouse, the flashing sign at the Yogo Inn read “Welcome Barry Beach and Friends,” as the released man and a small motorcade of supporters arrived for a celebration. The message had flashed optimistically hours before Phillips made his decision.
Inside, supporter Angela Austin of Glasgow helped Beach make his first post on the Facebook page Barry A Beach MFJ. The MFJ stands for Montanans for Justice, a group dedicated to Beach’s release.
Another group, the Centurions, a Princeton, N.J.-based group that fights to overturn decisions against people it believes are wrongfully accused, stood ready to post Beach’s bail had a sizable cash amount been needed. The Centurions have helped overturn 44 convictions since the 1980s.
After wearing a suit and tie to his hearing, Beach was escorted after the ruling to jail, where he changed his clothes, emerging in a Washington Redskins football jersey bearing the number 28. He said the number was symbolic for several reasons, the biggest being the 28 years and 11 months he spent behind bars.
“It’s not meant for human beings,” Beach said of prison life, before beginning to weep.
Beach recounted being two doors down from convicted murderers Ron Smith and Duncan McKenzie, who has been executed. He got on his knees and prayed that his conviction would be overturned. Later he dreamed three times of walking out of the prison gates. He said he took it as a sign from God that he would eventually be released.
“Thank God,” Beach said. “I can’t say that enough. I praise the Lord.”