“I’m not here to bash the judicial system,” Barry Beach told a forensic science class at the University of Montana on Friday. “I’m here to say, ‘Let’s do what we can to make it better.’ ”
Those are noble words coming from a man who spent 33 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
Beach, 53, was released from the Montana State Prison three weeks ago after Gov. Steve Bullock granted his clemency request, the culmination of three decades of fighting for his freedom after being given a 100-year sentence for the 1979 beating death of Kimberly Nees, 17, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Now, Beach, who is an entertaining and articulate public speaker despite his years in a cell, is committed to helping reform the criminal justice system and trying to reduce the number of people like him.
Beach told the class that the forensic evidence in Nees’ death was mishandled from the very beginning, and his 1983 confession in Louisiana was coerced. He allegedly confessed to three other murders there, but they were thrown out when it was discovered he wasn’t in the state at the time.
“We need you,” Beach told the class. "What they did to me was unethical, immoral and illegal. And you are the students who can prevent it from happening again.”
Beach’s case was taken on by the Montana Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries, two organizations that work to overturn wrongful convictions.
There were holes in the case against Beach from the beginning, including a complete lack of physical evidence and direct eyewitness testimony placing him either at the crime scene or in Poplar that day. The case against him relied solely on a taped confession that was later erased. The prosecutor in Beach’s case was Marc Racicot, who went on to become governor of Montana, chairman of the Republican National Committee and a lobbyist.
During his time in prison, Beach worked with legislators to pass a bill that requires interrogations in Montana to be videotaped.
“I’m one of the only people that has passed legislative bills from behind bars,” he said.
According to Beach, 368 wrongful convictions have been overturned by DNA evidence in the past decade in the U.S., and 28 percent of those involved false confessions.
“The number of wrongful convictions being overturned is going up,” he added.
He implored the students to pursue law and criminal justice careers and find ways to help rural communities preserve evidence at crime scenes, something that was not done in his case.
Beach said some positive things came from his time in prison. He went in as an alcoholic, but he said his addiction was taken from him in a moment of clarity in 1983. He also studied business skills and now owns his own “handyman” company in Billings.
He says the darkest point came after he was temporarily released in 2011 then sent back to prison.
“I had worked so hard to beat a life sentence and now they were taking it all away from me and I had to go back and put the handcuffs on again,” he recalled, fighting back tears. “That’s when the depression set in. I couldn’t do anything but curl up in a ball and cry for a week straight.”
Beach was asked if he was angry during his time behind bars.
“The number one thing that will keep you from reaching your goals is anger,” he said. “If I had carried the bitterness and anger during my years in prison, I never would have succeeded.”
“I thought it would be an ideal class for forensic students,” said UM professor Gary Kerr, who taught the Survey of Forensic Sciences course. “This has been a fascinating case for 30 years. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that links Beach to the crime, other than a faulty confession that was obtained in Louisiana by a person who has a history of getting false confessions. But from a forensic science point of view, other than that I don’t see any fingerprints, hair or blood spatter. Boy, what a perfect speaker for the students to really look at forensic science in action rather than just getting it from a book.”
In fact, a former prison guard who worked at the correctional facility in Shelby where Beach was being held in 2000 was in the class Friday as a student.
Karen Johnson came to UM to pursue a career as a juvenile probation officer, partly due to her experience seeing Beach confined.
“I didn’t have a lot of interaction with him,” she said. “But it’s a fascinating case. I think it’s a giant injustice. I think they just kind of were trying to shove through somebody, to pin it on somebody to get it off the books.”
Johnson said that being a female prison guard is tough, but the inmates were generally well-behaved.
“It wasn’t for me,” she said. “The inmates were actually pretty good. It’s a stressful job.”
After the class, Beach was treated as somewhat of a minor celebrity, with dozens of students posing for pictures with him and hugging him.
“I wouldn’t be here today without my mom and my supporters,” he said.