Attorneys for convicted murderer Barry Allan Beach have petitioned a District Court judge in Wolf Point for a new trial, arguing that a mounting body of evidence undermines the integrity of his 1984 conviction.
Beach, 45, was convicted at the age of 22 on the basis of a detailed confession he and his defense team say was coerced by detectives in Louisiana. He is serving a 100-year sentence without the possibility of parole for the brutal 1979 murder of his Poplar High School classmate and neighbor Kim Nees, a crime to which he confessed but has maintained ever since he did not commit.
In August, after reviewing reams of case documents and sitting through two lengthy hearings, the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole unanimously rejected Barry Beach's final appeal for clemency.
But even as state officials say they have lain the matter to rest, advocates for the convicted murderer's innocence have vowed to keep up every effort to win his freedom.
Attorneys for Beach, Peter Camiel of Seattle and Terrance Toavs of Wolf Point, filed a petition for post-conviction relief Friday in Roosevelt County District Court, where a jury convicted Beach more than 23 years ago.
Both attorneys were hired by Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based advocacy group that works to free innocent convicts, and began reinvestigating Beach's case in 2000.
Centurion Ministries agreed to begin researching Beach's case after investigators were impressed by the absence of physical evidence implicating Beach in the murder, despite an abundance of evidence collected by law enforcement officials at the crime scene.
Camiel said the evidence was presented at Beach's hearing before the Board of Pardons and Parole in June, but was filed in Roosevelt County District Court on Friday in support of the petition for post-conviction and a new trial.
According to Camiel, the petition is timely under Montana law, which says a person may challenge the validity of a sentence if new evidence is discovered. The petition must be filed within one year of the date the evidence is discovered.
Much of the evidence centers on the sworn testimony of 18 witnesses, mostly Poplar residents who say they heard others confess to Nees' murder. Camiel said the testimony lends credence to a decades-old rumor that a group of vengeful girls lured Nees to a clearing along the Poplar River, a spot where locals gathered for drinking parties.
The Montana Attorney General's Office has unequivocally challenged Beach's claims of innocence, and prosecutors maintain they incarcerated the right man, leaning most heavily on Beach's signed confession, which for 24 years has been the crux of their case.
At Beach's clemency hearing, assistant attorneys general Mike Wellenstein and Tammy Plubell said the confession has been upheld all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and corroborates too many accurate details to be false, as Beach and his lawyers claim.
But Beach's defense team argues that much of the confession doesn't match key evidence found at the murder scene in Poplar, including Beach's descriptions of what Nees was wearing and how he disposed of the body.
In January 2005, Beach filed a petition for DNA testing in Roosevelt County, which was granted. The analysis was conducted on one piece of evidence - a bloodstained towel discovered one block from the victim's home on the morning after the murder.
The blood on the towel did not belong to either Barry Beach or Kim Nees.
Beach's petition also requested DNA testing of a pubic hair found on the victim's sweater. Former Gov. Marc Racicot, who then worked for the attorney general's office and prosecuted Beach's case, told jurors the hair belonged to Beach. However, the hair was misplaced and could not be recovered for testing.
According to Camiel, Racicot's assertion was based on an analysis by Arnold Melnikoff, then a scientist at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula who specialized in hair analysis.
Melnikoff did not testify at Beach's trial, but instead provided a written report describing the hair as "having similar characteristics" to Beach.
Melnikoff later took a similar job in Washington state, where his hair analysis was widely discredited and was found to have led to wrongful convictions of two men who have since been pardoned. He was later fired from the crime lab in Washington for incompetence.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.