Montana board rejects Barry Beach's clemency bid

MATT VOLZ
Montana board rejects Barry Beach's clemency bid

DEER LODGE, Mont. (AP) — Montana's parole board on Wednesday rejected a clemency application from Barry Beach, meaning he will continue to serve a 100-year prison sentence for the 1979 slaying of a high-school classmate on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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.

Beach has argued police in Louisiana coerced the 1983 confession used to convict him in the beating death of 17-year-old Kim Nees of Poplar.

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.

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."

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.

A group of Beach supporters afterward accused the board of trying to coerce Beach into admitting something he didn't do.

"It's been 30 years, and that's far more than a lot of people serve for murder," said Joyce Ranum of Great Falls. "We just see this as a huge injustice here."

Department of Corrections officials said Beach would hold media interviews later Wednesday at the Montana State Prison.

Beach argued the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that juvenile offenders no longer can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, reflecting 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 that decision last year, sending Beach back to prison to finish his sentence.

Parole board members knocked down Beach's arguments, saying the Supreme Court decision did not apply to this case. They said the trial judge chose to impose the 100-year term, and wasn't forced to by state law.

With good behavior, Beach could get out of prison in 2036, McKee said.

Beach's good behavior outside prison does not prove he has been rehabilitated, accountability does, the parole board ruled.

Earlier this year, Gov. Steve Bullock wrote the board a letter saying Beach should have the opportunity for rehabilitation outside prison. It was the first time in memory a sitting governor had written such a letter.

Bullock would have made the final determination on clemency had the board made a recommendation to him. He 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," the governor 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.