HELENA – Prosecutors asked the Montana Supreme Court on Thursday to reinstate Barry Beach’s conviction for the 1979 killing of a 17-year-old girl on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Late last year, a district court released Beach on his own recognizance after ordering a new trial in the case. Judge E. Wayne Phillips determined new evidence raised doubts about Beach’s guilt after witnesses linked Kim Nees’ death to an out-of-control fight among teenage girls.
But the Montana attorney general’s office argues the evidence is unreliable and fueled by years of rumor mongering in Poplar.
The state, as expected, is asking the high court to declare the evidence insufficient, and to reinstate Beach’s original lifetime sentence. Alternatively, the state argues the high court should at least order a hearing to analyze the admissibility of the evidence before any new trial is ordered in the case.
The state said the lower court decision opens the door for convicts of all types to come forward with hearsay evidence after decades and get a new trial without meeting the extraordinarily high bar required to do so. The 73-page briefing argues the existence of “reasonable doubt” is not enough to warrant a new trial.
The original conviction relies on a lengthy confession Beach gave to out-of-state police several years after the crime.
In that confession, Beach said he tried to kiss Nees and became angry when she fought back. He described hitting her with a wrench and a tire iron, then thinking, “Oh my God, what have I done?” after checking her pulse and finding she was dead.
Beach argues the confession was coerced.
Beach’s lawyers produced several witnesses at a hearing last summer who testified that a group of women have over the years let slip their involvement in the crime, or who saw events that summer evening that would indicate a gang of girls with relatives on the local police force committed the crime during a jealousy-fueled fight.
Both sides have said it could take the Supreme Court up to a year to sort through the case.