Who needs sleep when there's a murder to investigate? As the cherry-red Indy truck wound its way nearly 600 miles from Missoula to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, nothing was further from my mind. It was 2006 and I had been given license to investigate the case of Barry Beach, convicted of murdering schoolmate Kim Nees in 1983. For years Beach had claimed to be innocent,sayingthe confession interrogators pried from him had been false and that a gang of jealous girls had been responsible for the brutal beating death.
Now I was on the ground, trying to sort out the facts from the fiction. My trip took me to the old murder scene where even hip-deep grass couldn't hide a lingering tragedy, through darkened saloons and fluorescent-lit police offices, searching for people who could take me deeper into the story. I had been warned for safety's sake to keep a low profile, but a redhead in a red truck emblazoned with the Indy's logo attracts more than her fair share of unsolicited conversations. Wherever I went, people kept telling me they knew about the Beach case and that the wrong person had been locked up. I spent many sleepless nights poring over piles of documents, searching for the truth and struggling to put it all onto paper for the world to read.
The Indy was the first newspaper to investigate Beach's case, and our reporting instigated a firestorm of coverage across the state and nation, including "Dateline NBC's" two-hour special on the case. This intense coverage, in turn, would prompt more people to come forward with valuable information, including a key eyewitness whose testimony helped convince a judge to free Beach in December 2011 pending a new trial. My role in the whole affair would help catalyze the creation of the Montana Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to investigating wrongful convictions, and I would become its founding executive director.
But in the wee hours, working through the most complicated story I had investigated to date, I didn't even conceive of these cascading impacts. My mind was fixed on more fundamental questions: Was Beach innocent? Does the proof add up? Can the Indy's reporting help achieve justice?
In my sleep-deprived state it was hard to tell, but today the answer is clear.