LEWISTOWN — A judge said Tuesday he will weigh the testimony of previously unheard witnesses who could help implicate a gang of girls in the 1979 beating death of a Poplar teenager — and not the man serving a 100-year sentence for the crime.
Barry Beach long ago confessed to killing Kim Nees, describing how he forcibly tried to kiss her and got angry at her for fighting back. He described hitting Nees 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.
Beach now says the confession — which prosecutors and previous hearings have found to be credible — was coerced.
Now the Montana Supreme Court has given him a chance to convince a judge there are enough new witnesses who have information that would prevent a jury from convicting him for killing Neese, who was 17.
District Judge E. Wayne Phillips said Tuesday he will weigh the testimony of previously unheard witnesses as he decides whether it is sufficient to grant a new trial.
Together, the witnesses offer tidbits of information aimed at implicating a group of teenage girls —including Sissy Atkinson, Maude Grayhawk and Joanne Jackson Todd — in a jealousy-fueled fight that got out of control and ended with Nees' death.
Both Atkinson and Todd are under subpoena and could be called to testify.
The women, who have been subject to local rumors since the 1980s and Beach's mounting accusations over the past decade, have previously denied any wrongdoing, and prosecutors never charged them with any crimes.
But former friends and coworkers' said the women have privately acknowledged participation.
Two former co-workers of Todd's at a Missoula nursing home said Todd told them five or six years ago that she took part in a gang attack on a girl as a teenager in Poplar, an attack the co-workers were led to believe caused the girl's death. Both former co-workers said they were incredulous, and didn't believe it until seeing a network news magazine program on the Beach drama that prompted them to come forward with the information.
A man who sold and used drugs with Atkinson in Great Falls said Atkinson acknowledged participating in such a crime long ago, although she didn't use names and specifics varied with the telling of the story. Kevin Hall said that Atkinson believed bad "karma" from the attack had plagued her with bad luck all her life.
One woman offered eye-witness testimony, saying as a 10-year-old girl she and a cousin spied the event from a hilltop.
Steffie Eagle Boy of Wolf Point told the judge Tuesday that as a young girl, she overheard the sounds of girls fighting at the crime scene. She said she remembers it took place in the summer of 1979, but could not recall the exact date.
"I could hear all the girls hollering and yelling 'get her,'" Eagle Boy said. "This other girl was saying, 'don't, please.'"
Eagle Boy said a police car came a short while later and helped the alleged attackers, supporting Beach's claims that relatives on the police force helped cover up for the girls.
Prosecutors pointed out that older relatives of Eagle Boy's, standing a bit farther back, testified at Beach's original trial that they heard nothing.
Prosecutors argue the new witnesses are unreliable for different reasons and point out that much of the testimony is dependent on hearsay — just like earlier witnesses brought forward by Barry Beach supporters. Prosecutors have been unimpressed with the tidbits of information, and their skepticism was backed in 2007 by a parole board that roundly rejected Beach's claims after a multi-day look at his claims.
This time, however, Beach has more witnesses and a Supreme Court order that does not require him to prove his innocence — just prove to a judge that the "weight and credibility" of the evidence would have prevented a jury conviction originally won based on that confession.