MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer DEER LODGE
A convicted murderer says he was tricked into giving a confession in 1983 and is asking that his 100-year sentence be reduced, to allow parole while he awaits a separate decision on an executive clemency request. Barry Beach, in prison for 23 years for the 1979 murder of 17-year-old Kim Nees in Poplar, was the focus of a hearing Wednesday featuring character witnesses. They testified the original sentence was too severe and said Beach deserves to be set free. Beach was supported by former state Sen. Chris Christiaens, D-Great Falls; former Yellowstone County Commissioner James Ziegler Sr. Of Billings; a former prison guard, childhood friends, his mother, people involved in prison ministries and others. They said Beach’s imprisonment was a tragedy and that he should be granted parole if the board does not approve forwarding his clemency request to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The former mayor of Poplar said the community backs Beach’s release. “I’m just here to ask you to find it in your hearts to recommend parole for Barry,” said Dallas O’Connor. “It is the town’s feeling that it is time.” The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole hearing follows a June hearing that focused on whether Beach really was the killer in a crime that has gripped Poplar for years. Beach has argued that a group of girls, some with relatives on the tribal police force in Poplar, are the real killers. Beach’s defense team, which includes a New Jersey advocacy group that works to free wrongly convicted inmates, has argued much of the confession doesn’t match key evidence found at the murder scene in Poplar, including Beach’s descriptions of what Nees was wearing and how he disposed of the body. The attorney general’s office has opposed Beach’s claims of innocence, and called on such witnesses in the June hearing as former Gov. Marc Racicot, the original prosecutor in the case, to dispute Beach’s claims. Prosecutors said the confession corroborates too many accurate details to be false. The confession’s credibility also has been upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The board has not yet decided whether to approve Beach’s clemency request and send it to Schweitzer for his decision. Even if board members decide to turn down the request, they could approve Beach’s commutation request and allow for parole. “I can’t believe he is not bitter and angry,” Robert Kolar, a Helena businessman involved in ministry at the prison, told the board. “I sincerely know we have an innocent man in our prison.” A former prison guard testified that Beach was a stellar inmate, who more than once helped her deal with rowdy inmates in situations that could have spun out of control. Dan Gengler, a Helena insurance actuary, said Beach never talks about his innocence or dwells on it while they meet for prison ministry functions. He is a quiet leader whom others trust, Gengler said. “I would have no problem with Barry living in my community, I would have no problem with him living next door to me,” he said. “I would have no problem with him staying overnight in my home.” Supporters testified that Beach has learned skilled trades in prison and would be given as much help as he needs once released. “He has served more than his time,” Ziegler said. Cars in the community center parking lot were emblazoned with “Free Barry Beach” signs. “I don’t think Barry was ever capable of killing Kim,” said Laurie Shafer of Poplar, who said she was a childhood friend to both the girl who was killed and Beach. “I don’t think he did it.” The attorney general’s office did not call any witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing, which wrapped up by midday. Board chairman Vance Curtiss said the board is taking all testimony into account, along with volumes of documents allegedly supporting Beach’s innocence. The board has not set a deadline for its decision. “We will make an honest, fair judgment,” Curtiss said.