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Barry Beach

Barry Beach

HELENA – The state Parole Board, which has rejected previous attempts by convicted murderer Barry Beach to commute his 100-year sentence, will probably process his latest request in the next few months, board officials say.

Yet even when the board does examine Beach’s request, it could reject it without holding a hearing, according to board rules.

“If it doesn’t get traction in the first part, it will not get to the second part,” said Board of Pardons and Parole Chairman Mike McKee. “It usually takes six months or longer for (an application) to work its way through the process.”

Beach, whose quest for freedom has garnered nationwide publicity and the support of prominent political figures in Montana, asked the board last September to commute his sentence so he could be considered for parole.

Beach’s 100-year sentence, handed down in 1984 for the murder of Kimberly Nees, says he is forever ineligible for parole.

Beach maintains he is innocent of the crime, but courts and the Board of Pardons and Parole have rejected his attempts to clear his name or gain a new trial.

The board so far has taken no action on Beach’s Sept. 12 application.

McKee said the application wasn’t complete until last October, and that he wanted to wait until two new members came onto to the board before it looked at the Beach application. The last of those two members started her term March 1.

Fern Johnson, the board’s executive director, said the next step is a Parole Board staff preliminary review of the Beach application.

Once that review is complete, the review and the application will go to a three-member panel of the board, which will decide whether to accept the application. That panel has not yet been chosen, Johnson said.

If the panel does not accept the application, Beach’s commutation will not be considered. If it accepts it, an investigation of the case will occur, after which the panel will decide whether to hold a hearing and go further with the case.

Should the board recommend commuting Beach’s sentence, that decision would be forwarded to Gov. Steve Bullock for any final decision on Beach’s fate.

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Beach has been at the State Prison since May 2013, when the Montana Supreme Court, on a 4-3 decision, overturned a lower-court ruling that he be freed while awaiting a new trial, which also was ordered by the lower-court judge.

Beach had spent 18 months living in Billings, where he had a job, rented a home and had support from people in the community.

“Mr. Beach is now a rehabilitated, middle-aged man who has served more time than almost any other offender for this type of crime,” his lawyer, Peter Camiel, said in the Sept. 12 application. “His prison record and his behavior throughout his 18 months of freedom have concretely demonstrated that he is an excellent candidate for parole. …

“If not Barry Beach, then who is deserving of commutation?”

The state, however, is strongly opposing Beach’s latest request, arguing he is guilty and that the Board of Pardons and Parole should not consider any new application.

The board rejected Beach’s request for a pardon in 2007, saying his alleged evidence of innocence was “lacking in substance,” and nothing has changed, state assistant attorneys general Tammy Plubell and Brant Light told the board in January.

“Beach is … not entitled to rehash the same arguments that the board and the courts have soundly rejected the past 29 years,” they wrote.

The state also dismissed Beach’s high-profile supporters, saying they have not fully evaluated the record of the case.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., are among those who have written letters in support of the commutation of Beach’s sentence.

In reply, Camiel said it was “offensive” to suggest that the hundreds of people who’ve written the board in support of Beach are “ignorant about this case or have been duped.”

Camiel argued that new information in the case justifies a re-examination, including court rulings and laws that prohibit parole eligibility restrictions for juvenile offenders. Beach was 17 when Nees was killed.

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Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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