Written by John Plestina
Although the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole announced Wednesday, June 11, that it rejected a clemency application from former Poplar resident Barry Beach, his attorney said the fight for Beach’s freedom is not over.
The decision by the three- member panel that heard testimony about Beach’s clemency application April 29 seemingly dashed Beach’s hopes that the full seven-member board would hold a full clemency hearing and commute his 100-year sentence with no eligibility for parole.
“Although the [parole] board suggested this is the end, it’s not the end. We are not going to give up on freeing Barry. This is not over by any means,” Beach’s attorney, Peter Camiel of Seattle, Wash., said. “There are a number of court options we are exploring.”
He did not elaborate except to say he is considering options with the Montana Supreme Court and the federal court system.
“While we are done with the parole board, we are not done,” Camiel said.
“We were profoundly disappointed. We think the reasoning of the board is illogical. We feel it is outside the statutes for clemency,” he said. “This exercise was in my mind a charade.”
Accused of the 1979 slaying of Poplar High School classmate Kim Nees and dumping her body in the Poplar River, Beach, now 52, was 22 years old when he was convicted in 17th District Court in Glasgow in April 1984 of a crime that occurred when he was 17.
His recent clemency application was partly based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that juvenile offenders can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The board rejected that position, saying the Supreme Court decision did not apply in this case.
In his latest application, Beach did not argue his innocence. Instead, his attorneys argued that circumstances had changed since his last clemency application was denied in 1979. The recent bid for clemency marked the fourth time since 1994 that the panel declined to hold a full clemency hearing for Beach.
An offender whose application previously was denied may apply again only if there is a substantial change in circumstances, parole board executive director Fern Johnson said.
People supporting clemency for Beach have said he showed model behavior in prison and when he was free for 18 months and living in Billings after a judge ordered a new trial in 2011.
“[The parole board] seem to be saying there is no changed circumstances no matter what,” Camiel said. “I think the decision was disrespectful of the people who support Barry,” he said, and added that he felt the board viewed Beach’s supporters as ignorant.
Gov. Steve Bullock wrote a letter in April asking the board to focus on Beach’s worthiness for parole and not on whether he is guilty or innocent.
The parole board received about 500 letters from people supporting clemency
with approximately 25 letters opposing Beach’s release.
The New Jersey-based prisoner advocacy group Centurion Ministries, whom Camiel is affiliated with, also has worked to free him.
Twenty of the more than 60 people who attended the April 29 hearing testified in favor of clemency for Beach, citing that he was a productive member of society and displayed good character while freed in 2011 awaiting a new trial. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 overturned a Montana District Court decision allowing a new trial, sending him back to prison.
Bullock would have made the final determination on clemency had the board made a recommendation to him. He said in a statement that he was disappointed with the panel’s decision.
In their two-page decision, board chair Mike McKee and board member Pete Lawrenson wrote opinions opposing clemency. Board member John Rex signed the decision but did not issue statements.
Parole board director Fern Johnson told The Searchlight May 29, “I think we’ve gotten two of the three [individual decisions].”
Beach told the Great Falls Tribune after the parole board decision: “In January 1983, I was coerced into making a confession to a crime I did not commit by aggressive interrogators. In a lot of ways [the board’s] statement is the same sort of coercion. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to hold your freedom over your head until you confess.’ I have not ever accepted responsibility for this crime, and I never will. I did not kill Kim Nees.”
Beach could be eligible for “good time” credit leading to early release due to the law that was in effect in 1979. That would put a possible release date in October 2036. Beach would be 74 years old.