Man Back in Custody After Taste of Freedom

     BOZEMAN, Mont. (CN) – After less than two years of freedom following almost three decades in prison, the Montana Supreme Court ordered a man back to prison for the 1979 killing of a 17-year-old girl.
     The state high court on Tuesday overturned a judge’s 2011 order freeing Barry Allan Beach and clearing the path for a new trial in the murder of Kim Nees.
     Four years after the murder in northeastern Montana, Beach was arrested on a misdemeanor charge in Louisiana. Detectives there questioned him about the murders of three young Louisiana women, as well as the Nees murder in Montana.
     Nees’s bludgeoned body had been found floating in the Poplar River by Fort Peck tribal police.
     Beach confessed to having murdered Nees, the sister of his girlfriend at the time. He also admitted his involvement in the Louisiana murders, but those confessions were later found to be false.
     He was sentenced to 100 years in prison without parole for the Nees murder and spent 29 years behind bars trying to clear his name.
     Several state and national advocates took up his cause, claiming his conviction hinged on a coerced confession. His story was even featured on an episode of “Dateline NBC.”
     But others fought to keep Beach behind bars, including the original prosecutor, Steve Bullock, now the state governor, and Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath, who defended Beach’s conviction as attorney general.
     (McGrath was replaced in the high court’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Simonton.)
     After unsuccessful attempts at having his conviction overturned or clemency granted, Beach filed a petition in 2008 claiming new evidence proved his actual innocence, including witnesses who suggested that Nees had been killed by a group of jealous girls.
     In 2001, a state district judge ruled that Beach had presented enough evidence of his actual innocence to warrant a new trial, and Beach was freed from prison.
     But the Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday voted 4-3 to reverse the district court’s ruling in a move that took Beach and his supporters by surprise.
     “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.”
     The high court said Beach failed to meet the “extraordinarily high” standard of proving his actual innocence.
     It also found that the lower court largely ignored the compelling trial evidence, including Beach’s admission that he beat Nees with a tire iron, when examining the new evidence.
     “After a review of all the evidence, we conclude that Beach did not provide reliable evidence of his actual innocence that displaced the trial evidence and thus his conviction,” the justices wrote in their 89-page majority opinion and concurrence (emphasis in original).
     Beach surrendered to authorities in Yellowstone County this week, ending his 17 months of freedom.
     “This case is not over,” Beach’s attorney, Peter Camiel, told the AP. “There could be more to this story. This is a big setback, but it is not the end.”
     Justice Jim Rice wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Beth Baker and Laurie McKinnon and U.S. District Judge Simonton.
     Justices Brian Morris, Patricia Cotter and Michael Wheat dissented.

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