HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request from Barry Beach to reconsider its decision last month to send him back to prison for the 1979 murder of a classmate after he spent 1 ½ years as a free man awaiting a new trial.
The court issued a ruling Thursday that sticks with its decision to reject a lower court decision granting Beach a new trial. The high court split 4-3 in both decisions.
Beach advocates have long argued that he has been wrongly imprisoned, with a sentence of 100 years with no chance of parole for a murder they say was the result of an out-of-control fight among jealous girls.
The 51-year-old Beach was living a quiet life in Billings with a job and a house when he was ordered back to prison. His supporters have vowed to continue the legal fight, and didn't expect the Supreme Court would reverse itself so quickly.
Beach's argument to the Supreme Court said the 4-3 majority wrongly discarded a lower court judge's findings from a 2011 hearing and established a new standard of review in the case. Beach's lawyers argued that the high court overlooked discrepancies in Beach's original confession that was used to convict him.
Beach argues the confession was coerced by out-of-state detectives who had picked him up on an unrelated crime.
But the majority of the justices said in their Thursday order that Beach relied on hearsay and unproven theories to argue for a new trial. The court said it can only consider rehearing it if it overlooked some "fact material to the decision."
"The facts established by evidence in the record were properly reviewed," the justices wrote in the brief order.
A minority opinion said the lower court properly followed the Montana Supreme Court's instructions in determining that a new trial was warranted. They argued the court should have allowed a new trial to proceed.
Over the years, Beach's requests to be freed have been rejected in courts and by an executive clemency panel that issued a stern ruling that he had been properly convicted.
Backers say there could be a way to pursue further claims in federal court.