LEWISTOWN — After spending nearly 29 years behind bars, convicted murderer Barry Beach was released on his own recognizance Wednesday to await a new trial in the 1979 death of a 17-year-old girl on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
District Judge E. Wayne Phillips ordered Beach's release at a hearing in Lewistown just weeks after ordering a new trial for the 49-year-old man.
After the hearing, Beach changed from a suit and tie into a Washington Redskins football jersey with the number 28. He said the number was symbolic, citing the 28 years and 11 months he has spent in jail and prison.
Beach pointed to his supporters gathered around him and said, "This picture is proof that the United States of America still believes in right and wrong, and when there's a wrong, you correct it."
The case has generated attention across Montana, with Beach proclaiming his innocence for years and gaining a long list of backers, including a New Jersey innocence group.
But many others, including the current Montana Supreme Court chief justice, argue Beach indeed bludgeoned schoolmate Kim Nees to death on a summer night more than three decades ago.
In ordering a new trial, Phillips said there was enough evidence to raise doubts about Beach's guilt after a court hearing last summer in which witnesses linked Nees' death to an out-of-control fight among teenage girls.
The state plans to appeal the order for a new trial to the state Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the state argued for bail to be set at $250,000 after the judge turned down its motion to stay the hearing pending its appeal.
But Phillips determined Beach has already served more time than most people convicted of similar crimes.
Beach supporters cheered the judge's decision.
A Billings man, Ziggy Ziegler, told the judge he would provide Beach with housing and a job at his restaurant if he was released.
"My wife and I would be honored to have Barry come live with us," Ziegler said.
Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Doran said state prosecutors do not plan to contest Beach's release but will focus on their appeal of Phillip's order for a new trial.
"We have an obligation to defend a murder conviction rendered by a Montana jury against a man who confessed to the most serious of crimes," Brant Light, a prosecutor representing the state in the case, said in a statement. "This is one more step in a lengthy legal process, and the final word has not been spoken."
Beach was convicted of deliberate homicide in 1984 and sentenced to 100 years in prison in the death of Nees, whose body was dumped in the Poplar River. He entered the Montana State Prison on Dec. 7, 1985, 26 years to the day of his release.
Beach has maintained his innocence for years, saying his 1983 confession to Louisiana police about the killing was coerced and that there is no evidence linking him to the crime.
In that confession, Beach said he tried to kiss Nees and became angry when she fought back. He 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.
The case made headlines in 2007, when the state parole board agreed to review evidence from Beach backers pointing to a gang of girls as the real killers.
The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole took the unusual step of taking testimony from the original prosecutors, investigators, the witnesses brought by Beach to support his claims, and Beach himself.
The dramatic events over several days thrust the case into the spotlight. But the board ultimately was not convinced, and rejected either commutation of Beach's sentence or an executive pardon.