HELENA — Convicted killer Barry Beach has gained a long list of supporters who are adamant that he is wrongfully imprisoned. Yet there are many, including the current Montana Supreme Court chief justice, who argue that Beach indeed killed schoolmate Kim Nees on a festive summer night in 1979.
Nothing has been normal about Beach’s case ever since Louisiana police got him to confess to the Montana murder — four years after it took place — absent any real evidence tying him to the crime. And it continues to generate headlines, including the bombshell last week from a judge who ordered a new trial after an unprecedented multiday hearing gave him doubts about whether Beach received a fair trial 25 years ago.
The murder of honor student Nees has gripped the small town of Poplar ever since her body was found alongside the river at a popular place for teenagers to party. The killing remained unsolved for several years, with small-town gossip building until out-of-state police got a confession out of Beach in 1983 after picking him up on an unrelated crime.
Since the start, there have been rumors that a group of local girls, toughened by living on the Fort Peck Reservation, beat Nees to death in a fight that got out of control and evaded the crime with the help of relatives on the small-town police force. The latest judge to look at the case agreed that testimony may provide just enough evidence to support the theory — and enough to cast serious doubts on Beach’s guilt.
Beach has now been awarded a new trial after proclaiming his innocence for years, and gaining plenty of influential backers to his cause along the way. But even the judge’s decision doesn’t clearly cut through the haze of complicated and contradictory stories surrounding the case of Beach.
The judge who granted the new trial made it clear that he isn’t sure Beach is innocent, even though he said there is enough evidence to raise doubts after spending several days last summer listening to the recollections from several locals about the killing. He decided to keep Beach jailed until the new trial — assuming the Montana Supreme Court lets his decision stand.
Beach’s attorney is asking the judge to allow Beach to be released on bail, after a quarter century behind bars, until the new trial can take place.
District Judge Wayne Phillips said the testimony “leads this court to conclude that the evidence is not sufficiently clear and convincing to bust down the absolute innocence gateway and have Mr. Beach walk out a free man. Also, we have Mr. Beach’s confession to consider.”
The specter of doubt
The judge said errors at the original trial — including the mishandling of evidence by local police — also cast enough doubt on whether Beach got a fair trial that he should be allowed to argue constitutional claims of procedural errors.
And since there was little hard evidence after the original crime — and none now — any new trial will hinge on the confession Beach says was coerced. Unlike other high-profile innocence cases, there is no DNA evidence that could be used to potentially exonerate Beach.
All that is left of that confession is a typed transcript, the original audio tape long gone. That confession was enough, however, to convince a jury at Beach’s original trial and plenty of people since.
Marc Racicot, before he went onto become attorney general, governor of Montana and then chairman the Republican National Committee during the Bush administration, was the original prosecutor on the case.
“There is not one moment of doubt ever in my mind since I have looked at this confession, and since I have been part of this case, that Barry Beach is guilty as charged,” Racicot told a parole board that in 2007 agreed to review evidence from Beach backers pointing to the gang of girls as the real killers.
That parole board took the unusual step of taking testimony from the original prosecutors, investigators, the witnesses brought by Beach to support his claims, and Beach himself. The dramatic events over several days thrust the case back into the consciousness of Montanans.
The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole wasn’t convinced and rejected either commutation of his sentence or an executive pardon.
“A day ultimately comes when matters are deemed settled; for our perspective, if never before, at last today is that day,” the board said.
Former Attorney General Mike McGrath — now chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, which could eventually take this case again — lauded the board at the time and said, “I am grateful that the board has, in its own words ‘laid this matter to rest.’”
The girls accused by Beach and others of being the real killers have publicly denied participation.
After last summer’s court hearing where the judge pondered evidence, one of the women, Sissy Atkinson, told The Associated Press she was disappointed that she was never called by Beach’s lawyers and given a chance to refute the allegations that have hounded her for several decades.
“I wanted to defend my honor,” said Atkinson, who lives in Poplar. “I have never been brought down in spirit over the years because I know I am really innocent.”
But former friends, co-workers and even family testified that the women have over the years let slip that they helped kill Nees.
Overheard at a party
One woman recalled overhearing as a girl, when eavesdropping on partying teenagers, the shrill cries of girls beating another girl. Nees’ body was found at the scene the next day.
The judge called that testimony “extraordinarily credible and believable,” especially when tied together with testimony from unrelated witnesses who say that various women have privately said the murder was part of a gang attack that spiraled out of control.
Prosecutors dismiss the tidbits of testimony as gossip-mongering built on, in some cases, drug-addled and false statements of women looking to build on tough reputations.
Then there is the lengthy confession, a reason Phillips cited for deciding to keep Beach in jail rather than set him free.
Beach described how he forcibly tried to kiss Nees and got angry at her for fighting back. He described hitting her with a wrench and a tire iron, then thinking, “Oh my God, what have I done?” after checking her pulse and finding she was dead.
Beach’s attorneys argue that there are several errors in the confession to substantiate their argument that it is false and coerced.
Beach told The Associated Press in an interview last week from prison that he is innocent and a real culprit is on the loose.
“To me there’s still justice for Kim Nees and there’s still questions that haven’t been answered yet,” Beach said. “Being granted a new trial just opens all the doors and the possibilities for that to take place.”