HELENA — Montana’s parole board on Wednesday denied a clemency bid from Barry Beach, who said he will keep fighting to overturn his 100-year murder sentence for the 1979 beating death of a high school-classmate.
The decision from the state Board of Pardons and Parole marked the fourth time since 1994 that the panel has rejected a bid for executive clemency by Beach in the slaying of 17-year-old Kim Nees on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
A key factor in the decision was that Beach has not admitted to committing the brutal killing, board members said.
“It’s certainly something we as board members feel is necessary to true rehabilitation — accountability. And that’s not here,” board member Pete Lawrenson said.
Beach has argued police in Louisiana coerced the 1983 confession used to convict him in Nees’ killing. In an interview at Montana State Prison, he compared that coercion to the parole board’s conditions for considering him rehabilitated.
“I have not ever accepted responsibility for this crime, and I never will,” Beach said. “I did not kill Kim Nees.”
Hundreds of supporters have taken up his cause, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. The New Jersey-based prisoner advocacy group Centurion Ministries also has worked to free him.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel called Wednesday’s announcement “alarming and very, very disappointing news. There is a lack of justice, as far as I am concerned.”
Hanel is a former lieutenant with the Billings Police Department who led the department’s internal investigations.
“There is definite doubt in the investigation and follow-through by our justice system,” Hanel said. “And the letter from former Gov. Racicot was very disappointing news. I question his information.”
Former Gov. Marc Racicot, who was the special prosecutor in Beach’s 1984 murder trial, wrote that the parole board should reject clemency for Beach. Racicot said in his letter the new evidence Beach refers to is the same that was considered and rejected by the Supreme Court in its decision to deny a new trial.
In April, Hanel joined Ziggy and Stella Ziegler, Steve Wahrlick and others from Billings to testify on Beach’s behalf before the Board of Pardons and Parole, meeting in Deer Lodge.
The state’s detention system “is very extensive and a tremendous burden on taxpayers,” Hanel said. “There are people who need to be confined, but in this case Barry has demonstrated his ability to fit in with society and be a model citizen. Why not release him on parole, and make room for somebody else?”
Hanel noted that Beach had “a lot of opportunity in Billings” should he be released from his sentence. “He could have kept himself on the right track,” Hanel said.
Hanel said he’s convinced “there was a poor investigation” following Nees’ murder. “Whenever there is reasonable doubt, the person being charged — being placed behind bars, in this case — the case needs to be reviewed, and they did not give him a fair review at all.”
In his latest application, Beach did not argue his innocence. Instead, he said circumstances have changed since his last clemency application was denied in 2007.
An offender whose application previously was denied may apply again only if there is a substantial change in circumstances.
Board chairman Mike McKee said the three-member panel agreed unanimously circumstances had not changed.
Beach’s popularity grew — the board received 500 letters from his supporters compared with approximately 25 letters opposing his release — but the facts remained the same, McKee said.
“What’s popular is not always right,” McKee said. “We have a lot of people who are long on opinion and short on facts, and that’s the bottom line.”
Beach pointed to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found juvenile offenders no longer can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The decision reflected new scientific findings that young criminals have the capacity to change.
Plus, supporters say Beach showed model behavior in prison and when he was free for 18 months after a judge ordered a new trial for him. Witnesses told the judge that Nees might have been beaten to death in an out-of-control fight among a gang of girls.
The Montana Supreme Court overturned the judge’s decision last year, sending Beach back to prison to finish his sentence.
Beach said it was only after his release was revoked that he remembered what he was fighting for. He said he would turn to the courts instead of the parole board to find his way out of prison instead of lying down and accepting his fate.
“I have lost my life in this place, and I know I could do something better out there if I was given the chance to do it,” he said. “We will not quit.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Steve Bullock wrote the parole board a letter saying Beach should have the opportunity for rehabilitation outside prison.
Bullock would have made the final determination on clemency had the board made a recommendation to him. The governor said in a statement he was disappointed with the panel’s decision.
“Since Mr. Beach committed his crime as a juvenile, served over 30 years and conducted himself appropriately both inside and outside of prison, I believe there’s a strong argument for him to remain under state supervision as a parolee,” Bullock said.
Attorney General Tim Fox, however, said the board’s decision was the correct one.
“Thirty-five years after the murder of Kim Nees, Montana’s law enforcement community hopes this matter can now be finally laid to rest, and that Kim Nees’ family can heal, find peace and move on,” Fox said in a statement.
Gazette reporter Mike Ferguson contributed to this report.