BILLINGS — The three-decade fight for freedom by a Montana man convicted of the 1979 slaying of a teenage classmate entered what could be its final stage this week, when the Montana Supreme Court ordered him back to prison and took away his brief taste of normal life.
But from the time he confessed to out-of-state police four years after the notorious killing of Kim Nees, almost nothing about the Barry Beach case has been routine — and advocates promised they will find other ways to prove his innocence.
Beach, 51, has been a cause celebre among some influential state and national advocates who say his murder confession was coerced. Years of calls for his release culminated in a 2011 judge's order freeing him and laying the groundwork for a new trial, with testimony expected from witnesses who allege Nees was killed in an out-of-control fight among girls.
Before Wednesday, Beach had been free for more than a year, settling into a new life in Billings, with a house and a job, after more than 27 years in prison for the killing. The state Supreme Court's reversal of the 2011 order put him back in prison for what will likely be the rest of his life barring some kind of intervention.
In his last hours of freedom, Beach ate breakfast at a Billings diner where he gathered with a small group of friends including the city's mayor. Wearing a T-shirt that read "I didn't do it," he fielded calls from supporters and said he had received so many text messages that it was wearing out his phone battery.
"It was hard enough to be innocent to begin with," Beach told The Associated Press. "But to be going back, still innocent, for the second time, is just unbelievable."
Less than two hours later he surrendered himself to authorities and was returned to Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, where authorities placed him in an intake unit that holds about 150 inmates.
By Thursday he already was going through the standard process for incoming inmates, including a series of medical and mental health checks and a review of his security status. He'll stay in the intake unit until a bed to opens up in the long-term cell blocks, said Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Anez.
Under normal circumstances that could take months, but for Beach it could be just a few weeks "because obviously he's not a new inmate in the conventional sense," Anez said.
Prior to his release, Beach's good behavior earned him privileges such as a spot on the inmate maintenance crew and a bed on the low-security side of the 1,500 inmate prison. He'll likely be eligible for similar privileges.
Less certain is whether he'll qualify for the least-restrictive area of the prison, the work and re-entry center. That's where prisoners work and live "outside the fence" as employees of the prison's ranch and dairy farm or members of the inmate wildland firefighting crew.
Over the years, Beach's polarizing case has made him nearly a household name in Montana, as his cause collected a lengthy list of supporters, including former state legislators and other elected officials.
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The case involves an endless string of strange details such as missing DNA evidence, a bloody palm print at the crime scene that didn't belong to either Beach or Nees and murmurings over the years that a group of women privately was taking credit for the crime. All that, coupled with allegations that a relative to one of those women was on the local police force and broke into the evidence room prior to the trial.
Yet many have joined the victims' immediate family and others in adamant belief of Beach's guilt.
A majority of court justices sided with those supporters when they ruled Tuesday that Beach's lengthy 1983 confession to detectives in Louisiana outweighed hearsay witnesses who told the district court judge in 2011 that Nees might have been killed by a jealous gang of girls.
The court cited past legal setbacks for Beach, including a clemency panel that roundly rejected the innocence claim, and concluded that he "did not provide reliable evidence of his actual innocence that displaced the trial evidence and thus his conviction."
The court indicated its decision concluded Beach's legal "saga." But in this case packed with unusual legal twists and turns nothing seems certain — and advocates led by Centurion Ministries promised to keep pushing for Beach again to be released.
The case has delivered a few legal wins for Beach but they're always followed by more setbacks. His backers were able to get an unusual 2007 clemency hearing that allowed new defense witnesses — but then had to face a strong rebuttal from the original prosecutor and former Gov. Marc Racicot, a political luminary in the state, and a lengthy confession that to many trumps other evidence.
Beach was long ago turned away by the federal courts, but backers believe there could be another chance there given more recent developments. They also could petition the state's high court to rehear the case, although no decision has been made.
His attorney, Peter Camiel, said innocence claims like Beach's always face many hurdles before they are completed.
"For me, personally, it is one of the most unusual cases I have dealt with," Camiel said. "You have to keep your head up most of all because we know our client is innocent."
Before he walked into the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office to surrender, Beach made the most of his 17 months of freedom, cognizant that it could come to a quick end, his mother said.
He started his own handyman business and later got a job doing maintenance at a hotel. He went water skiing, bowling, camping, fishing and attended local school sporting events. Bobbi Clincher said she hopes those days will come around again but understands her son faces long odds.
"As long as there's a breath in a person, there's a fight, or there should be fight," Clincher said. "It's just been unending ... But there are other courts in the land, and you just continue to do what you have to do."