CS Masthead


Bullock’s Executive Order Frees Barry Beach


Hours after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock commuted his sentence, Barry Beach gives his mother, Bobbie Clincher, a hug in Billings Friday, Nov. 20.

Barry Beach’s family will be truly thankful when they gather in Laurel for Thanksgiving dinner. The long-incarcerated Beach will be joining them.
The former Poplar resident walked out of Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge a free man Friday, Nov. 20, following months of speculation after the passage of legislation granting Gov. Steve Bullock clemency powers.
After three decades of legal wrangling, Beach’s long campaign for freedom came to an end with Bullock issuing an executive order that freed him at noon Friday. It allows him to resume his life, but is less than a pardon. Bullock commuted Beach’s sentence to time served, an additional 10 years suspended with 10 years probation under the supervision of the Montana Department of Corrections.
Beach remains convicted of the June 1979 murder of Poplar High School classmate Kimberly Nees, a crime he has maintained his innocence of for 36 years.
Bullock’s executive order cites that Beach was a juvenile when Nees was killed and that he demonstrated that he is capable of living a productive life with respect for society’s rules during the 18 months he was free between 2011 and 2013. The executive order also cites that three psychological reports conclude that Beach is likely to successfully transition back into society.
“I’m a little bit more than happy. Stunned and surprised actually. It’s an absolute miracle. Never in the history of Montana State Prison has this ever happened this way,” Beach told The Herald-News Sunday.
“Today is probably the first day I’ve had time to get business done,” he said. That included cleaning his house and shopping.
Beach said he would comply with conditions of his probation Monday and Tuesday by meeting with his probation officer and registering as a violent offender, a condition added to his probation because he remains legally convicted of murder.
Despite that, he said, “I’m enjoying freedom.
“We’re going to have an awesome Thanksgiving,” Beach said.
He said it is unlikely he would ever visit Poplar or Wolf Point.
“I have nothing in Wolf Point or Poplar that I have left. I have no desire to go back there,” Beach said.
“I have a life to live. I fought for 32 years to live my life,” he said.
“I’m just thankful to be where I’m at today. It’s a true miracle of God to be here today. They can never take me back,” Beach said.
During 17 months of freedom between 2011 and 2013 while waiting for a new trial he never got, Beach worked as a maintenance man at the Clocktower Inn in Billings.
Beach’s mother, Bobbi Clincher, 75, of Laurel said Friday the hotel’s owner held the job for him.
“His job is waiting for him. His boss was so good to keep his job for him,” she said.
Beach said he plans to eventually return to the job at the hotel.
His attorneys, Peter Camiel of Seattle, Wash., who has represented him for about nine years, and Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J., investigative agency that has freed more than 50 wrongly-convicted people from prisons and accepted Beach’s case about 15 years ago, were at the prison to pick him up. Beach carried a clothes basket full of personal items and said he would not return to prison when he got into a Chevrolet Suburban with Camiel and McCloskey. They drove him to Billings, with a first stop at his mother’s home in Laurel for a short visit.
Beach had to be in Billings before 5 p.m., to report to a probation officer. From there, they drove him to his house, also in Billings.
Beach, now 53, languished in Montana State Prison for most of the 31 years since the late Judge James Sorte sentenced him in 17th District Court in Glasgow to a 100-year term in the custody of the Montana Department of Corrections without the possibility of parole on May 11, 1984, at age 22. Beach was charged with deliberate homicide in 15th District Court at Wolf Point in September 1983. The venue was changed to Glasgow, where a jury convicted him based on a confession that Beach has retracted and said was coerced with aggressive tactics by investigators in Louisiana.
Now retired Fergus County District Judge E. Wayne Phillips ordered a new trial following a three-day evidentiary hearing in Lewistown in December 2011 and temporarily freed Beach on his own recognizance. Phillips ordered a new trial based on witness testimony that Nees died in a fight with other teenage girls and young women. A 4-3 decision by the Montana Supreme Court in May 2013 vacated the lower court order for a new trial resulting in Beach having to return to Montana State Prison. He surrendered himself to the custody of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office on May 15, 2013, after 17 months of freedom. Beach remained incarcerated for another 2 ½ years until Bullock issued the executive order freeing him. In all, Beach was imprisoned in the maximum-security penal facility for exactly 30 years. In addition, he served several months in the Roosevelt County Jail and in a jail in Louisiana prior to April 1984.
Bullock’s executive order cites that Beach was a juvenile when Nees was killed and that he demonstrated that he is capable of living a productive life with respect for society’s rules during the 18 months he was free between 2011 and 2013. The executive order also cites that three psychological reports conclude that Beach is likely to successfully transition back into society.
Bullock had remained mum about clemency for Beach since he penned his signature to House Bill 43 in April, which granted him and future Montana governors final authority in clemency decisions, even if the Board of Pardons and Parole previously denied clemency applications. HB 43 went into effect Oct. 1, making Montana the 43rd state to grant final clemency powers to governors.
Speculation that the governor would grant clemency for Beach centered in part on a letter Bullock wrote to the parole board in April 2014 saying he believed Beach deserved an opportunity for rehabilitation outside of prison. At the time, a clemency application was pending.
The parole board denied that application and three others in 1994, 2005 and 2007.
Despite being convicted of a crime that occurred when he was a juvenile, Beach served more prison time than the average adult sentence.
Beach’s attorneys filed a new clemency application with the parole board in October, because the seven-member panel must still decide whether to hear a prisoner’s case and make a ruling before the governor can grant clemency. The board, in a statement, said it reached a unanimous decision that the new application was substantively similar to a previous application that was denied, and forwarded the application to the Governor’s Office on Oct. 29.
In May, the Montana Supreme Court denied a petition Beach’s attorneys filed in October 2014 with a 4-3, 68-page decision. The petition sought re-sentencing based on the constitutionality of the 100-year sentence without eligibility for parole because it was for a crime that occurred when Beach was a juvenile.
“I’m just so ecstatic and I’m so thankful to everyone for their prayers and support, and to the governor, and to the legislators for getting the ball rolling,” Clincher told The Herald-News about an hour after her son was released.
Clincher said her son was not aware that Bullock was going to free him for Thanksgiving until a little after 7 a.m. Friday, about five hours before Bullock signed the executive order.
“I have so much to be thankful for,” Clincher said.
“He wants the turkey drumstick and the turkey neck,” she said.
“It’s been a long haul. It really has,” Clincher said.
A large number of people — local and non-local — have called for Beach’s release from prison. They include many people in Wolf Point and Poplar, supporters statewide in and out of state government, including a group that has frequently walked the bridge at 1st Avenue North and 10th Avenue South in Great Falls.
Bumper stickers that say “Free Barry Beach” are occasionally seen on cars in Wolf Point and Poplar, and across Montana.
A high-profile bipartisan mix of Montanans calling for Beach’s release have included U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and former Secretary of State Bob Brown.
A few months ago, State Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who carried HB 43 to the floor, and 35 other legislators signed a letter that she composed to Bullock asking him to grant clemency for Beach.
Several Republican senators and representatives also wrote to Bullock and recommended that he commute the sentence to time served.