LEWISTOWN — A man convicted in the 1979 beating death of a teenager on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation asked a judge Monday to reconsider evidence to support his claim that a group of girls was actually responsible.
The request by defendant Barry Beach at an ongoing hearing relies on some witnesses and claims that were overwhelmingly rejected four years ago by a parole board.
Still, Beach wants District Judge E. Wayne Phillips to overturn his 100-year sentence for the death of Kim Nees.
Beach supporters, led by a group that seeks to undo wrongful convictions, successfully petitioned the Montana Supreme Court for the hearing they hope will lead to a new trial.
The judge appeared intrigued by a key witness who testified that another woman once took responsibility for the crime that shook the small town of Poplar.
Judy Grayhawk testified that her sister-in-law, Maude Grayhawk, acknowledged in 2004 that she was involved in the killing. The conversation between the women was prompted after investigators with Centurion Ministries, the group helping Beach, started poking into the old crime and sought Maude Grayhawk for an interview.
The testimony backed up Beach's claim that a group of girls with ties to the local police force through relatives was actually responsible.
"She said 'I didn't kill that girl but I kicked her in the head a few times. I guess I was the one who lured her down there,'" Judy Grayhawk said of the brief conversation in which she said Maude Grayhawk was despondent and suicidal over the situation.
Prosecutors objected to her testimony as hearsay and argued that Beach's team did not do enough to get Maude Grayhawk herself into the courtroom through a court order. Beach attorney Peter Camiel said efforts failed because Maude Grayhawk is currently in a Denver jail for drunken driving and other violations.
The judge begrudgingly allowed the testimony by Judy Grayhawk after briefly considering suspending the hearing until he could order Maude Grayhawk returned to Montana to testify.
Phillips said he found it compelling that Judy Grayhawk would come forward with the information, even though it is tearing her family apart and prompting her husband to threaten divorce.
"I appreciate very much the route you have taken," the judge told her. "I think the truth is worth it."
Another witness, Janice White Eagle Johnson, a former co-worker of Maude Grayhawk, testified that Maude Grayhawk appeared afraid to talk to Centurion Ministries investigators who showed up at her workplace seeking an interview and avoided them.
Johnson testified Monday that when she asked Maude Grayhawk why, she indicated she had something to hide by saying, "'My car was down there that night. Those girls had my car.'"
Prosecutors with the Montana attorney general's office quizzed both witnesses about why they never took such information to the police and challenged the credibility of the statements.
Prosecutors have never charged Maude Grayhawk in the case and believe they have the right man in prison.
The judge also agreed Monday to review the testimony previously given to the parole board in 2007 by three people who are now dead.
One is the brother of Sissy Atkinson, one of the women Beach claims is among the killers. Beach's legal team said Atkinson once indicated in a conversation she was partying with Nees and other girls down by the river and saw one of them chasing Nees with a wrench.
Atkinson has never been charged in the case. At the 2007 parole hearing, she denied having any role in the killing.
Carl Four Star, who previously testified before the parole board, was expected to testify today. Beach lawyer Camiel said Four Star is fearful of retribution from the Atkinson family because he once overheard her say Beach didn't have anything to do with it because she knew Grayhawk and others were responsible.
But Beach's lawyer did not call Atkinson to testify and did not indicate he planned to do so.
The judge rejected some other witnesses he said did not have anything new to offer.
Judge Phillips will decide whether the evidence is sufficient for Beach to pursue legal claims that could lead to a new trial. Phillips also has the power to declare Beach innocent, but defense attorneys acknowledge that threshold is high.
Much of the evidence Beach is bringing forward was already rejected in the hearing before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole.
That board made it clear that it believed Beach was guilty of the crime. It pointed to a detailed confession Beach said he does not remember providing, even though he can remember in detail events leading to the 1983 statement recorded by police in Louisiana who picked him up on another issue.
In that statement, Beach describes forcefully trying to kiss Nees and getting angry at her for fighting back. In the transcripts, Beach described hitting her with a wrench and a tire iron then thinking, "Oh my God, what have I done?" after checking her pulse and finding she was dead.
Prosecutors have argued Beach has conveniently forgotten the confession.
Beach's supporters argue the confession was coerced.