MISSOULA — The special prosecutor in the 1984 murder trial of a Montana prisoner serving a 100-year prison sentence for a killing committed when he was 17 says the case has been exhaustively reviewed and the state parole board should reject a recent plea for clemency.
Barry Beach was sent to prison without the possibility of parole for the 1979 beating death of Kim Nees near Poplar. The high school classmates were 17 at the time.
Former Montana Attorney General and Gov. Marc Racicot, who was the special prosecutor in Beach’s case, wrote to the Board of Pardons and Parole on Tuesday. That same day during a hearing in Deer Lodge, Beach’s supporters argued that he should be eligible for parole because young criminals can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Beach, who has served 30 years in prison, also applied for clemency in 1994, 2005 and 2007, Racicot said. Beach was released for 18 months after a judge ordered a new trial, but the state high court overturned that decision and he returned to prison last year.
Beach’s September 2013 clemency application states that new evidence casts more doubt on his conviction. Beach is no longer arguing his innocence, but that circumstances have changed since his last clemency request was rejected. Besides the U.S. Supreme Court decision and new scientific research showing juvenile offenders can change, supporters say he showed model behavior in prison and when he was free.
“It is critically important to note that the ‘new evidence’ referred to in Beach’s newest application for clemency is precisely the same evidence that was previously examined and carefully considered by the Montana Supreme Court in its (May 2013) decision denying any post-conviction relief and/or a new trial,” Racicot wrote.
Racicot also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court decision on juvenile sentencing came in the case of a 14-year-old Alabama boy who was given a life term without the possibility of parole because that was what state law required. He said that decision doesn’t apply to Beach’s case because the district judge who handed down the sentence did so without such restrictions.
Montana parole board chairman Mike McKee has said he hopes the seven-member panel will decide by the end of May whether to accept Beach’s application. If it does, it will hold a full clemency hearing. If it doesn’t, Beach’s sentence will stand.
The board last decided in 2007 that Beach’s conviction should not be overturned or his sentence commuted.
Four years later, District Judge E. Wayne Phillips heard arguments about new evidence in the case, granted Beach a new trial and released him from prison.
“It was very clear that if Barry Beach were to be sentenced in today’s day and age, for a heinous murder, he already would have served the maximum sentence that is generally handed out in the United States,” Phillips said of his 2011 decision. “I determined that he should have an opportunity for freedom.”
The Montana Supreme Court overturned that ruling and Beach returned to prison in 2013.
Phillips, who has since retired, is a board member of the Montana Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate the innocent and prevent wrongful convictions and has helped with the Beach case, KECI-TV reported.
Before this week’s parole board hearing, Gov. Steve Bullock, also a former attorney general, wrote to the board asking its members to consider whether Beach has served enough time in prison. Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer wrote to the board last September saying he believed Beach had served enough time in prison.
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