Barry Allan Beach
|Born||February 15, 1962|
|Home town||Poplar, Montana|
Barry Allan Beach (born February 15, 1962) is an American who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees in Poplar, Montana. During the years following his conviction, his case has drawn national attention. Beach has gained support from influential state and national advocates who say his murder confession, the lynchpin of his conviction, was coerced. In 2015, his sentence was commuted to time served, plus ten years on probation.
His case is partly responsible for the development and passage on January 23, 2015 of Montana House Bill 43, which grants the Governor of Montana the right to approve clemency for convicts without approval from the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole.
Murder of Kimberly Nees
In the early morning of June 16, 1979, 17-year-old Kimberly Nees was brutally murdered outside Poplar, Montana. Later that morning, police found her family's pickup truck at a well-known party spot half a mile outside of town. They followed a trail of blood from the truck to the Poplar River, where they found Nees’ body. An autopsy revealed she had suffered 20 or 21 blows to the skull. There was no indication that a robbery or sexual assault had taken place. Nees’ sweater was found folded neatly near the back of the truck with her purse and a pack of cigarettes placed on top.
More than two dozen fingerprints were found on the vehicle, as were multiple footprints in and around the trail. A bloody palm print was found on the passenger door. An FBI investigation later determined that the palm print must have been left by the killer.
Nees was the graduating valedictorian from Poplar High School that year and was described as pretty and popular. Residents of Poplar rumored that the murder was a "jealousy killing" and that three or four peers in town were involved in her death.
Beach, then 17, was Nees’ neighbor and had previously dated Nees’ sister. Beach was one of the people questioned by police for the murder but no charges were filed against him at the time.
Trial and conviction
After the murder, Beach moved to Louisiana to live with his father. In 1983, Beach was arrested after his stepmother called the police, claiming Beach had helped his stepsister skip school. Beach's stepmother revealed to police that Beach had been questioned for Nees’ murder. The police were investigating the murder of three women at the time of Beach's arrest. Beach was interrogated over these murders and the murder of Nees. Initially, Beach denied involvement in Nees’ murder, but after two days of questioning, he confessed to Nees’ murder. He also confessed to the murder of the three Louisiana women but was later cleared of these murders because Beach was not in Louisiana at the time of these murders.
Beach was charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty during his trial in 1984 in Glasgow, Montana, arguing that his confession was coerced. The prosecutor during the case, Marc Racicot, argued that the detailed confession that Beach provided was one that only the killer could have made. Even after Beach was charged with Kim's death, neither Beach, his friends or family believed Beach would be convicted. Beach said that he hoped that the truth would be self-evident to the jury. Six hours after the testimony was concluded and the case was submitted to the jury, the jury rendered a guilty verdict. Beach was sentenced to 100 years without parole. Pam Nees, Nees’ sister, later said, "I just couldn't believe that he would do that, or that he would even be around her."
Questions regarding trial
Many questioned the evidence and prosecutorial conduct of Marc Racicot during the trial, and rumors persisted that a group of girls were responsible for Nees’ murder after the conviction.
Poplar's police chief revealed that the night after the murder, a police officer broke into a sealed room where evidence from the crime scene was stored. The police officer was the father of one of the original suspects that was not charged. Because of his entrance, the evidence stored inside was inadmissible in court. A strand of pubic hair that was recovered from the crime scene was one piece of evidence that was ruled out. Crime lab scientist Arnold Melnikoff had claimed that the hair had "similar characteristics" to Beach's hair, but an autopsy had revealed that there was no indication of recent sexual activity. At a subsequent job, Melnikoff was subsequently found incompetent and fired by the State of Washington for his inability to analyze hair. Melnikoff had testified against at least two other men in the state of Montana who were wrongly convicted of murders of which they were later exonerated.
Although the hair was inadmissible as evidence and was not proven to belong to Beach, Marc Racicot, then a prosecutor for the Attorney General's Office who would go on to become governor of Montana, told the jury that a pubic hair had been found on Nees’ sweater that was, "in fact, the defendant’s." Racicot reiterated this mistruth during his closing statements.
In his closing arguments, Racicot minimized the importance of many pieces of evidence from the crime scene that did not implicate Beach in the murder. Racicot claimed that the footprints found at the scene, which did not match Beach's, could have been left by police, even though the prints indicated bare feet and sandals. He also said that the bloody palm print found on the truck might have belonged to Kim to explain why the print did not belong to Beach. However, multiple police reports concluded that the print belonged to neither Nees nor Beach.
The tape of Beach's confession had been erased and thus could not be heard during Beach's trial. A transcript of the confession was read instead. Beach maintains that his confession was coerced. The same detectives involved in Beach's interrogation elicited confessions of murder from at least two other men that were shown to be false. According to Beach, Commander Alfred Calhoun, who was one of the detectives that interrogated Beach, promised him he would personally see him fry in an electric chair. Beach also claims that during the interrogation, he was asked to speculate how the murder might have taken place and was asked to give a hypothetical narrative as if he were the murderer. Beach claimed that he gave the confession because he had been instructed to do so and was told that he could prove his innocence later when he was transported back to Montana.
Since Beach's confession, the lead detective on the case in Louisiana, John "Jay" Via, has been accused of misconduct in many cases over many years, and his credibility has been placed into question. According to Via's personnel file, he was suspended without pay on at least four occasions, placed on a one-year probation, twice threatened with the possibility of termination, and ordered to undergo a neurological examination to ascertain whether there was anything "organically or physically wrong with his ability to think and remember". Via was also accused of soliciting a false testimony in another murder case.
Beach's confession, the only piece of evidence tying Beach to the crime, has been questioned for its inaccuracies. Racicot's argument placed a high level of significance on Beach's knowledge of what Nees was wearing the night of her murder. Beach said Nees was wearing a brown sports jacket and plaid blouse. In fact, she was wearing a white sweater and blue and red blazer. A transcript of a call that took place before Beach's confession between Montana's sheriff and Via cast more doubt on Beach's confession. The transcript suggested Via believed Nees was wearing a brown plaid shirt, very similar to the inaccuracy that appeared in Beach's confession. The detective denied any wrongdoing, but some believe that Beach was fed details of the murder to make his confession more convincing.
Beach confessed to putting Nees’ body in a garbage bag feet first and then dragging her body to the river by her shoulders. However, evidence showed that Nees’ body had been dragged by her feet. Also, police had found no shred of a garbage bag on the rocky path leading to the river from the truck. Beach's confession also indicated that he threw the murder weapons and keys to the truck into the Poplar River; however, the river was searched by divers on several occasions and none of these items were found in or near the river.
Crime scene reports indicated that the truck at the scene of the crime was parked 257 feet (78.3 m) away from the Poplar River, but Beach reported that Kim's truck was parked right by the river. Beach also said that he wasn’t sure if Kim was bleeding after the attack, but the crime scene indicated considerable bleeding, both inside and out of the truck.
In his confession, Beach alleged that he choked Nees, but an autopsy found no indication of strangulation. Beach also claimed that after the murder, he wiped his fingerprints from the truck, but many fingerprints, four palm prints and one bloody palm print were found on the truck, none of which belonged to Nees or Beach. Finally, Beach said that Nees tried to escape from the driver's side door, but the bloody palm print was on the passenger's side.
Centurion Ministries’ involvement
Beach requested help from Centurion Ministries, who agreed to research his case after their investigators reviewed the facts of the case and noticed an absence of physical evidence that tied Beach to the murder, despite the abundance of evidence collected at the crime scene. Centurion Ministries formally took on the case in 2000. In doing so, they conducted an exhaustive reinvestigation of Beach's conviction.
Centurion's investigators uncovered evidence, including testimonies from people who said that a group of girls confessed to them about killing Nees. One of these girls was Dottie Sue "Sissy" Atkinson. Witnesses, including her own brother, said Atkinson implicated herself in the murder. Atkinson was allegedly jealous because Nees had a romantic relationship with Alex Trottier, the father of Atkinson's daughter. However, none of the fingerprints or the palm print belonged to Atkinson.
Centurion Ministries also brought a motion to conduct DNA testing on the evidence, which a judge granted in 2005. However, the state said it could not locate the evidence collected from the crime scene, including the pubic hair, a bloody towel, hairs contained in more than 100 slides, cigarette butts, or Nees’ jacket. Therefore, DNA testing could not be conducted.
In August 2006, Centurion Ministries submitted an application for clemency on Beach's behalf to the office of then governor Brian Schweitzer. Centurion Ministries used the analysis of Professor Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, to support Beach. Leo stated, "[false confessions are] one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction" and concluded that Beach's confession lacked specifics that, as police claimed, "only the killer could have known".
The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole on August 23, 2007, rejected the application, stating that "no proof of innocence, or newly discovered evidence of nonguilt" was presented. "It is apparent to us that it would have been impossible to create so detailed and so correct a false confession in any event: but the validity of that observation is underscored brightly by the facts that Mr. Beach knew and explained much which the officers had not been able to piece together," the board said.
2011 trial and release
A Dateline special on the case aired April 4, 2008, and prompted more support for Beach. On November 24, 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing for the case, to determine "whether a jury, acting reasonably, would have voted to find Beach guilty beyond a reasonable doubt".
Centurion Ministries made a motion asking for a new judge to hear a new appeal of Beach's conviction, which the Supreme Court of Montana approved, appointing Fergus County District Judge E. Wayne Phillips to the case. In August 2011, Beach appeared before court for the retrial. During his first appearance in court, he was met with applause.
Beach's lawyers called new witnesses that had come forward after the airing of Dateline's special. Steffie Eagleboy, then 10 years old, testified before court that she witnessed the murder. She said she then saw a patrol car pull up to the scene of the crime after the murder. According to Eagleboy, a police officer exited the vehicle to assess the scene before leaving. Because she had seen a cop at the scene already, she said she saw no point in going to the police about what she had witnessed.
Other witnesses alleged that Atkinson and Joann Jackson, another former suspect of the crime, had told them about how they committed the crime.
The State of Montana contended that the new witnesses were not credible. Montana Attorney General also claimed that none of the evidence exonerated Beach or suggested multiple attackers were involved.
In November 2011, Judge Phillips issued a ruling that there was clear and convincing evidence that a jury could find Beach innocent in the case and granted Beach a new trial. Beach was released from prison to the custody of Billings businessman James "Ziggy" Ziegler, who had met Beach through prison prayer service. Hours after the ruling, after nearly three decades behind bars, Beach was free on his own recognizance, pending a new trial.
In Billings, Beach started his own maintenance company and then became the head of maintenance at a hotel. Beach also traveled throughout Montana giving speeches on hope.
On May 14, 2013, the Montana Supreme Court reinstated Beach's murder conviction in a 4-3 decision. Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice wrote, "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". Beach thus was not granted a new trial and was ordered to resume his life sentence immediately. The same day, he told the press, "It was hard enough to be innocent to begin with, but to be going back, still innocent, for the second time, is just unbelievable". A few hours later, he surrendered himself to the authorities.
2014 attempt for clemency
In April 2014, Beach's attorney Peter Camiel sent an application for commutation to Montana's Board of Pardons and Parole requesting that Beach be considered for parole. Camiel argued that circumstances of the case had changed since the board rejected his earlier request for clemency. At the time of application, the Governor of Montana could only decide whether a prisoner's sentence could be commuted in non-death-penalty cases if the Board of Pardons and Parole recommends commutation. Earlier that year, Governor Steve Bullock had sent a letter to the board supporting commutation of Beach's sentence and indicated that he would free Beach if the Board voted to move ahead with the clemency application.
Over two hundred Montanans, including U.S. Senator John Tester, former U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, and Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, wrote letters to the Board supporting Beach's petition for clemency.
On June 12, 2014, Montana's Board of Pardons and Paroles again rejected Beach's application for clemency.
In October 2014, Beach's attorneys asked Montana's Supreme Court to order that Beach be resentenced. The Supreme Court asked the State to respond to his attorneys' claim that Beach's 100-year sentence is illegal because the trial court did not consider that Beach was a minor at the time of Nees’ killing and because it leaves no opportunity for release.
Beach's attorneys say Beach was a teenager at the time of the murder, and legal precedent says teens should not be handed life sentences. The Montana Attorney General's office says this precedent does not extend to murder cases.
Beach's most recent attempt at appeal was heard by the Montana Supreme Court on February 4, 2015.
On May 5, 2015, the court denied Beach's petition for writ of habeas corpus ruling that the rule in Miller v. Alabama, prohibiting mandatory life sentences for juveniles, did not apply to Beach because his sentence was not mandatory under Montana's then sentencing scheme, which required individualized consideration. The court also ruled that the rule in Miller that a court must follow a certain process before imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile was a new rule and was not substantive and therefore could not be applied retroactively.
House Bill 43
On January 23, 2015 the Montana House approved House Bill 43 on an 86-to-14 vote. The bill, which grew out of Beach's case, says the governor can consider any clemency application regardless of the board's recommendation. It also says the governor can order the board to have a hearing on a clemency request if the board denies a hearing. This has paved a new path for Beach to seek clemency.
Billings Democrat Margie Macdonald who supported House Bill 43's passage said, "Montana is only one of only eight states where the board has so much power, and can prevent the governor from addressing a case should he or she feel it has merit."
Beach's sentence was reduced by Montana Governor Steve Bullock on November 20, 2015. The sentence was commuted to time served plus an additional ten years on probation.
- "Petition for writ of Habeas Corpus" (PDF). October 23, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- Dennison, Mike (May 15, 2013). "Montana Supreme Court sends Barry Beach back to prison". The Missoulian. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
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- Adams, John (May 25, 2013). "Record of detective questioned: Louisiana official accused of trying to elicit false jailhouse confession testimony in death penalty case" (PDF). Great Falls Tribue. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
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- ""Barry Beach on The Today Show"". The Today Show. June 10, 2012. NBC.
- "Meet Jay Via: One bad cop, in one county, who did a whole lot of damage".
- Letter to Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer re: Application for Clemency, Pardon or Commutation for Barry Allan Beach (PDF), Washington, D.C., August 10, 2006, retrieved February 22, 2015
- Scott, Tristan (January 20, 2008). "Attorneys for Barry Beach petition for new trial". Missoulian. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "Centurion Ministries:Active Cases". Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "Centurion Ministries: FAQ". Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
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- Dennison, Mike (June 16, 2014). "Barry Beach says he's had it with Montana courts; may look to federal justice system". Billings Gazette. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
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- Bishop, Shane (June 12, 2014). "Barry Beach Clemency Application Denied". NBC News. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "Barry Beach attorneys ask Supreme Court for resentencing". Billings Gazette. Washington, D.C. October 24, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "Supreme Court to state: Respond to Barry Beach's request for new sentence". Missoulian. Washington, D.C. October 30, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "Barry Beach Files Brief for Appeal". ABC Fox Mantana. Washington, D.C. January 16, 2015. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- Talwani, Sanjay (February 4, 2015). "Montana Supreme Court hears arguments regarding a new sentence for Barry Beach". KRTV.com. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- Barry Allan Beach v. State of Montana. Montana Supreme Court. 5 May 2015.
- Dennison, Mike (January 29, 2015). "House endorses bill on governor, clemency". DailyInterLake.com. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- Jess, Steve (January 28, 2015). "House Votes To Give Governor Power To Grant Clemency". Montana Public Radio. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- Wadley, Will (September 3, 2015). "Barry Beach reacts to clemency bill". NBC Montana. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "Bullock comments on proposal that could free Barry Beach". KPAX.com. Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
- Governor grants clemency to Barry Beach KPAX. 20 November 2015.