Gov. Steve Bullock has an opportunity to show mercy, and we think display a sense of justice, by commuting the 100-year prison sentence of Barry Beach.
Numerous investigative pieces, including a lengthy report on “Dateline NBC,” have questioned the appropriateness of his conviction for the 1979 slaying of Kim Nees on Fort Peck Indian Reservation. There are allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Beach has spent most of the last 30 years of his life behind bars.
Two years ago, Fergus County District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips, after listening to both sides, dismissed the charges and set Beach free. That ruling was reversed 18 months later by a 4-3 vote of the Montana Supreme Court.
But Beach’s guilt is is not the question before the governor.
Petitions forwarded to the governor call on him to commute the sentence as a sign of mercy.
The arguments in favor of the move are pretty overwhelming.
Beach was 17 years old at the time of the murder. According to Montana law, teens cannot receive a life sentence. So he was sentenced to 100 years in prison without chance of parole. That sounds pretty much like life in prison.
During his 30 years at Deer Lodge, Beach has been a model prisoner. During his 18 months of freedom, he was was a model citizen. As Phillips said when he released Beach, with all eyes on him, Beach was probably the least likely person in all of Montana to commit a crime.
The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole is notoriously tough when granting any kind of pardon. But a nudge from the governor might just do the trick.
If the board approves a commutation, Bullock must sign off for it to go into effect.
Commuting the sentence would be good for Beach, for Montana as a whole and for our system of justice.
The Beach conviction has been an open wound on the psyche of northeestern Montana for three decades now. It’s time to heal that wound.