DEER LODGE – A Montana man who spent three decades behind bars for a murder he says he did not commit walked out of prison Friday after the governor granted his clemency request.
Barry Beach, 53, told reporters gathered outside the Montana State Prison's front door that the moment was "surreal."
"I knew it was going to be here someday," Beach said. "The good Lord in heaven has always assured me that I'd reach this point. I never dreamed it was going to take this long."
He added there would be "a lot of healing and a lot of tears" during the four-hour drive to his Billings home, and he thanked Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for keeping his word.
The governor, who was not present, previously said he'd look favorably on Beach's request.
Beach was serving a 100-year sentence with no possibility of parole for the 1979 beating death of Kimberly Nees, 17, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana.
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Bullock noted in his order that Beach was only 17 at the time and exhibited good behavior in prison.
The murder of Nees, an honor student, gripped the small town of Poplar after her body was found alongside a river at a popular place for teenagers to party. No arrests were made, and small-town gossip built until Beach confessed to out-of-state police who picked him up on an unrelated crime.
But Beach said his 1983 confession in Louisiana was coerced. His long campaign for freedom drew support from hundreds, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
A cousin of the victim, Glenna Nees Lockman, said Friday it was shameful Beach had been released without someone else being charged in the crime.
"Oh, my god. That's so not right," Lockman said. "Someone needs to be held accountable. If it's not Barry Beach, go to court and prove who it is."
Lockman for years counted herself among those who believed in Beach's innocence. She said she became uncertain over the past two years and came to view him as "a con, a manipulator" who was willing to hurt others for his own benefit.
In his order, Bullock did not directly weigh in on whether Beach was innocent or not, and a spokesman said the governor would have no further comment on the issue.
Beach was released for 18 months beginning in 2011 after Montana District Judge E. Wayne Phillips ordered a new trial, based on witness testimony that Nees died in a fight among a gang of girls.
But the state Supreme Court blocked the trial, sending Beach back to prison. Phillips, who has since retired, told the Associated Press on Friday he was pleased to see Beach finally free. Beach already has proven he can handle life outside prison by staying employed and out of trouble when he was previously released, Phillips said.
"Even assuming that he was guilty, he's shown himself to be reformed. Isn't that the goal of the American justice system?" Phillips said.
The governor last year asked the state parole board to consider whether Beach served enough time in prison. State officials rejected Beach's request for clemency on four prior occasions. Last month, after receiving a fifth request, the parole board forwarded the matter to Bullock.
A new law – inspired in large part by Beach's case – gives Montana's governor the final decision in clemency requests instead of the parole board.
Under the clemency order, Bullock commuted Beach's sentence to time served with 10 years suspended. Beach will remain on probation for 10 years, supervised by the state Department of Corrections.
Three psychological reports on Beach concluded he poses "minimal risk to public safety and is likely to successfully transition back into society," Bullock wrote in his order.
"Mr. Beach has demonstrated an extended period of good behavior both in and out of prison, and the reasons for maintaining his 100-year-without-parole sentence at taxpayer expense diminish with each passing year."
During his time on the outside, Beach worked at the Clocktower Inn in Billings, Montana's largest city.
His mother, Bobbi Clincher, said Friday the hotel's owner had told her the job was still available for Beach, and she expects he will resume working there soon.
"It's been a long haul. It really has," Clincher said. "He probably would like to take a little bit of time off, but there's the reality that he has to support himself."