On Aug. 23, the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole declared that Barry Beach was properly convicted of Kim Nees’ 1979 murder. Besides declining to recommend a pardon for Beach, who maintains he was wrongly convicted at the hands of former assistant attorney general and prosecutor Marc Racicot based on a false confession coerced by Louisiana detectives, the Board also refused to render Beach, who’s served 25 years of a 100-year no-parole sentence, eligible for release.
Ultimately, the Board concluded, “We have laid this matter to rest,” and, “This is our justice system; Mr. Beach has been recipient of its fullest protections. A day ultimately comes when matters are deemed settled; from our perspective, if never before, at last today is that day.”
But for many Montanans who have invested substantial investigation and scrutiny into this matter, the Board’s assertion falls flat; we simply can’t agree that disturbing questions regarding Beach’s case have in fact been laid to rest. Despite its unanimous, unwavering denial of Beach’s innocence claims, the Board fails to allay the burning questions that spurred its consideration of his case in the first place; its steadfast refusal to grant Beach even one of the many contested points provokes doubts about the Board’s evenhandedness.
Echoing arguments offered by the state attorney general’s office, the Board offhandedly dismisses as “amorphous statements” the detailed testimony of several witnesses, including Judy Grayhawk and J.D. Atkinson, that they received confessions to Nees’ murder from their relatives, Maude Grayhawk and Sissy Atkinson. The Board says Beach’s confession—the only basis for his conviction, since no crime-scene evidence implicated him—provides evidence “at least as compelling as fingerprints could possibly have been,” which is demonstrably untrue; false confessions result in a full quarter of wrongful convictions eventually overturned due to DNA evidence. The Board gratuitously aired its belief that Racicot was a “fine and principled” prosecutor, and painted the seven-year investigation by Centurion Ministries, the organization representing Beach, as the work of charlatans. In all, it seemed the Board used the opportunity to slam the cell door on Beach once and for all.
Regardless, Beach and Centurion Ministries say they’ll continue fighting in other venues to gain his freedom, though this rejection marks a major blow. And in coming months, “Dateline NBC” will air its investigation of the case, which will attract national attention to the matter. Despite the Board’s assertion that the issue is over, it isn’t. The Board had an opportunity to apply careful consideration and closure to a troubling case. Judging by the tone and content of its conclusions, it didn’t.