“It [is] more a duty [of an Attorney General] to save an innocent than to convict a guilty man.” We know we do not live in a perfect world where only the guilty are convicted and the wrongly accused go free, but prosecutors can sometimes seem more interested in winning convictions than in remembering these words of Thomas Jefferson.
Kimberly Nees was 17 years old in 1979 when she was brutally beaten to death near the town of Poplar. Barry Beach, also 17, was one of several classmates who were interviewed in her murder. No charges were brought against him or any other person, and the crime remained “unsolved” until members of the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s office in Louisiana got a confession from Beach in 1983. Beach and his defense has always argued it was coerced. Authorities in Louisiana also got Beach to confess to committing three Louisiana murders. Those confessions were dropped when it was revealed that Beach was not even in Louisiana when the murders took place.
Beach was returned to Montana, charged with Nees’ murder, and convicted on the basis of this confession, even though the details of the confession were grossly inconsistent with the actual events at the murder scene. In addition, crime scene evidence that could have exonerated Beach was held inadmissible because the evidence room had been broken into. Nonetheless, Beach was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison without parole. Thus began Beach’s long quest for justice.
Centurion Ministries became involved, and in 2005 they were able to get a motion to get DNA testing done on a pubic hair, a bloody towel, and several other items from the crime scene. But, incredibly, the State of Montana had lost the evidence, so no testing could be done.
Finally, in 2011 the Montana Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing, assigned to Fergus County District Judge E. Wayne Phillips, to determine whether Beach should have a new trial. Phillips concluded that clear and convincing evidence did exist that would be sufficient for a jury to find Beach not guilty, and granted Beach a new trial. To await a new trial, after 30 years in prison, Beach was released, on his own recognizance, to the custody of Billings businessman and former Yellowstone County Commissioner James “Ziggy” Ziegler whom Beach had met through a prison ministry program. Following his release Beach was a model citizen, gainfully supporting himself in his own small maintenance business and as head of maintenance at a Billings hotel.
It was astounding to us and to many Montanans who had been following the Beach case when on May 14, 2013, the Montana Supreme Court, on a 4-to-3 decision overruled a fellow judge by refusing to grant Beach a new trial and instead reinstated Beach’s murder conviction, and returned him to prison. When on June 12, 2014 Montana’s Board of Pardons and Paroles again rejected Beach’s appeal, supported by letters from Gov. Steve Bullock, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sen. Jon Tester, and former Sen. Conrad Burns, the public reaction was great. We Montanans have a sense of justice and fairness that didn’t seem to square with the treatment of Beach.
Representing this sentiment the 2015 legislature voted 88-12 in the House and 50-0 in the Senate to amend the law to allow our governor to directly consider clemency applications in a way similar to most other governors. We think Bullock, a former attorney general, understands Jefferson’s philosophy of duty as it pertains to innocence and guilt. The new law allowing him to thus intervene for Beach becomes effective on Oct. 1. We hope he will use it to bring justice to Barry Beach.
former Republican state Senate president
former chair of state Democratic Party