HELENA — In a 4-3 decision, the Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a lower-court ruling that had granted a new trial for convicted murderer Barry Beach. The ruling is likely to send him back to the Montana State Prison.
The high court's majority reversed a judge’s 2011 ruling in the high-profile case, saying District Judge Wayne Phillips of Lewistown did not properly weigh the new evidence provided by Beach and old evidence at Beach’s trial 29 years ago for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees near Poplar.
“Beach’s new evidence — in the form of testimony that is primarily hearsay, internally inconsistent, and inconsistent with evidence presented at Beach’s 1984 trial — does not reliably displace the evidence tested at Beach’s trial, including his confession,” Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice wrote for the four-person majority.
Beach, who has been free and working in Billings for 18 months, told The Associated Press late Tuesday that he didn’t know what the decision meant and that he had just found out about it.
Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said state attorneys working on the case were still reading the opinion late Tuesday and wouldn’t comment until Wednesday.
Authorities said it’s likely that an arrest warrant will be issued for Beach to return him to the Montana State Prison to serve out the rest of his sentence, but details on the process weren’t clear Tuesday evening.
Beach has claimed his innocence for many years, and his case has drawn national attention.
Centurion Ministries of Princeton, N.J., a group that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted, began working on the case a decade ago, and the case was the focus of a “Dateline NBC” episode in 2008.
Beach confessed to the crime in 1983 under questioning by police in Louisiana, was convicted by a Roosevelt County jury the next year and sentenced to 100 years in prison. Yet Beach later said he was coerced into a false confession, and that a group of girls had fatally beaten Nees on June 16, 1979, near Poplar, in northeast Montana.
While Beach failed on many attempts to overturn his conviction, he finally succeeded in December 2011, when Phillips ruled that new evidence in the case showed that Beach may be innocent and that he should have a new trial.
Phillips made the ruling after a three-day hearing, at which several people testified that they had heard, heard about or seen a group of women who appeared or claimed to be involved in the beating death of Nees.
Beach was released to the custody of Billings businessman James “Ziggy” Ziegler, who met Beach through prison prayer service in the 1980s. Since his release, Beach has been living at Ziegler’s home and working as a maintenance manager at the Best Western Clocktower Inn in Billings.
Ziegler said Tuesday that he and Beach learned about the Supreme Court ruling from reporters.
“You would think it’s sort of a cheap shot, putting this out at 3:30 in the afternoon and the media informs Barry, who didn’t know anything about it,” Ziegler said. “I’m just devastated. We’re trying to figure out what the options are.”
Ziegler said he and his wife, Stella, planned to meet with Beach and Beach’s attorneys to decide their next steps.
Beach’s mother, Roberta Clincher, of Laurel, also said Tuesday that his attorneys are trying to figure out what the decision means for her son’s future.
Joining Rice in Tuesday’s Supreme Court majority decision were Justices Beth Baker and Laurie McKinnon, who was elected to the high court in November, and state District Judge Richard Simonton, of Glendive, who sat in for Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath.
Justice Brian Morris wrote the dissent, saying Phillips was in the best position to evaluate the credibility of those who testified before him at the 2011 hearing.
“(Phillips) has presided over at least 35 criminal trials and has experience gauging the credibility of witnesses,” Morris wrote. “I cannot say from this vantage point that the District Court’s determination regarding the witnesses’ credibility and believability rises to the level of clearly erroneous.”
Morris, who was joined by justices Mike Wheat and Patricia Cotter in the dissent, said Phillips did consider Beach’s confession while making his ruling, and that the ruling should stand.
“This ruling marks what likely will be the final chapter in the saga of Barry Beach,” Morris wrote. “We oversee a criminal justice system that seeks to resolve a defendant’s guilt through processes created and administered by humans.
“Humans, by nature, are fallible and the processes that humans create share this same fallibility.”
Rice, however, said Phillips erred by not considering all of the other evidence presented at Beach’s trial, besides the confession, that pointed to his guilt.
Rice’s opinion provided a detailed summary of the new evidence presented by Beach and pointed out what he said were numerous weaknesses and discrepancies.
“In view of the contradictions between the new testimony and the objective evidence tested at trial, we must conclude that the new testimony does not provide a reliable account of Nees’ death that displaces the trial evidence upon which Beach was convicted,” Rice wrote.