BILLINGS - If honking horns are any indication, a lot of people think Barry Beach is an innocent man.
A couple dozen Beach supporters held a rally Saturday on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn in downtown Billings to publicize the plight of the man they believe was wrongly convicted of murder.
Beach was convicted in 1984 of the 1979 slaying of 17-year-old Kimberly Nees. Nees was bludgeoned to death and her body thrown into the Poplar River.
Her murder remained under investigation until 1983, when Beach, a former classmate, was arrested in Louisiana and confessed to the killing.
Beach later recanted the confession, saying he was coerced by detectives in Louisiana who were investigating other unsolved murders of young women.
The case drew national attention when “Dateline NBC” produced an hour-long episode examining Beach’s conviction and claim of innocence. A nonprofit organization, Centurion, backed Beach’s efforts to prove his innocence.
Beach was sentenced to 100 years in Montana State Prison. In 2011, E. Wayne Phillips, a Lewistown judge, ruled that Beach presented sufficient evidence at a hearing that he was wrongfully convicted and that he deserved a new trial.
About two weeks later, on Dec. 7, 2011, Phillips released Beach from the prison in Deer Lodge, where he had served nearly 30 years of his sentence. The judge said Beach had already served more time than most people convicted today of similar crimes.
Beach settled in Billings after his release, where he lived and worked for the next 18 months. In May, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that there was not sufficient evidence to order a retrial, and Beach was returned to prison.
Supporters believe Beach is innocent and ought to be released from prison. Saturday, they stood on the sidewalk and held up signs saying “Free Barry Beach” and “Honk for Barry.”
Many drivers obliged, blasting their horns as they drove by on North 27th Street. In turn, the line of protesters cheered the passing drivers.
Others on foot stopped by the courthouse lawn to look at a collection of photos of Beach and buy items on sale as part of a fundraising effort.
Sue Searcy, one of the rally’s organizers, said the event was hopefully the first of many to provoke public outrage about the handling of the case.
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“We want justice for Barry, as well as for Kim Nees,” Searcy said. “It’s about Barry, but we also need to get some justice for Kim Nees and her family.”
Searcy, of Billings, said she was living in Cody, Wyo., when she first saw the “Dateline NBC” episode about Beach. That prompted her to read about the case, and the more she read the more she thought “this guy’s been railroaded into this.”
Searcy spoke of fingerprints, footprints and blood at the crime scene that didn’t match Beach or Nees. She also criticized Louisiana investigator Jay Via, alleging he has been known to feed suspects information so their confessions contain at least bits of truth.
“Barry was forced to confess to two other murders in Louisiana and then they found out he wasn’t even in Louisiana when they happened,” Searcy said. “Once I started reading all this information, I knew Barry Beach was innocent.”
Searcy said she and others want to get public awareness that an injustice has been perpetrated, and to get out the facts.
“We want people to know that just because a jury found him guilty does not mean he’s guilty,” she said. “We want the actual murderers of Kim Nees to be prosecuted.”
Searcy said it will take three things to free Beach. The first is a great legal team, which she said Centurion is supplying, and the second is prayer, for which she has started a Facebook page.
“And we also know that public outcry is another one,” Searcy said. “We have to get the word out so that people understand what’s happened here.”
She was pleased to hear the sound of horns in the background.
"We're getting a great response from the public," she said.
Vickie Chamberlain, of Miles City, stopped by the rally with some others to buy some T-shirts, postcards and stickers calling for Beach’s release.
“I was just trying to buy whatever I could to help,” she said. “It doesn’t take a genius to know this boy is innocent.”
Chamberlain said she’d like to see him released from prison “so he could have the life he deserves.”