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May 16, 2013 Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. — The three-decade fight for freedom by a Montana man convicted of the 1979 slaying of a teenage classmate entered what could be its final stage this week, when the Montana Supreme Court ordered him back to prison and took away his brief taste of normal life.
But from the time he confessed to out-of-state police four years after the notorious killing of Kim Nees, almost nothing about the Barry Beach case has been routine — and advocates promised they will find other ways to prove his innocence.
Beach has been a cause celebre among some influential state and national advocates who say his murder confession was coerced. Years of calls for his release culminated in a 2011 judge's order freeing him and laying the groundwork for a new trial, with testimony expected from witnesses who allege Nees was killed in an out-of-control fight among girls.
Before Wednesday, Beach had been settling into a new life in Billings, with a house and a job, after more than 27 years in prison for the killing. The state Supreme Court's reversal of the 2011 order put him back in prison for what will likely be the rest of his life barring some kind of intervention.
In his last hours of freedom, Beach ate breakfast Wednesday morning at a Billings diner where he used to work with supporters, including the Billings mayor.
Beach, wearing a T-shirt that read "I didn't do it," fielded calls from supporters and said he had received so many text messages that it was wearing out his phone battery.
"It was hard enough to be innocent to begin with," Beach told The Associated Press less than two hours before surrendering himself to authorities. "But to be going back, still innocent, for the second time, is just unbelievable."
Beach was back at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge by late Wednesday, where he was taken to an intake unit that holds about 150 inmates. In coming weeks, he'll go through a series of medical and mental checks and have his security classification reviewed while waiting for a bed to open up in the long-term cell blocks, said Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Anez.
Beach's polarizing case has nearly made him a household name in the state as his cause collected a lengthy list of supporters including former state legislators and other elected officials.
The case involves an endless string of strange details such as missing DNA evidence, indications that someone other than Beach or Nees was at the crime scene that summer night long ago and murmurings over the years that a group of women privately was taking credit for the crime. All that, coupled with allegations that a relative to one of those women was on the local police force and broke into the evidence room prior to the trial.
"Barry Beach's case has been powerful for a lot of people in this state and in this country partly because of the unique characteristics," said former journalist Jessie McQuillan, who covered the case as a reporter and now runs the Montana Innocence Project. "I am just amazed at the wide range of people that have been drawn to his case."
Yet many have joined the victims' immediate family and others in adamant belief of Beach's guilt. That includes the original prosecutor, who went on to become one of the state's most popular governors, and the current Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice, who as attorney general forcefully defended Beach's conviction.
A majority of court justices sided with those supporters Tuesday, ruling that Beach's lengthy 1983 confession to detectives in Louisiana outweighed hearsay witnesses who told the district court judge in 2011 that Nees might have been killed by a jealous gang of girls.
A split court said Beach did not meet the threshold of proving innocence, and upheld his 1984 conviction. The court cited past legal setbacks for Beach, including a clemency panel that roundly rejected the innocence claim.
"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.
Attorney General Tim Fox lauded the work of attorneys who defended the conviction.
"Their diligent efforts honor the memory of Kimberly Nees and hopefully bring about some sense of closure for her mother, Diane Nees," Fox said.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Diane Nees declined comment. "I haven't talked during this whole episode so I will not start now," she said.
But even in the Nees family — like the rest of Montana — there are different opinions on the case.
Glena Nees Lockman, who identified herself as a cousin of the victim, said she was "sick to her stomach" that Beach was back in custody years after she became convinced of his innocence after hearing from the witnesses in Poplar.
"I had high hopes the state would finally go after those responsible for killing Kim," Lockman said.
The Montana Supreme Court indicated its decision concluded the legal "saga." But in this case packed with unusual legal twists and turns nothing seems certain — and advocates led by Centurion Ministries promised to keep pushing for Beach again to be released.
Before he walked into the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office to surrender, Beach made the most of his 17 months of freedom, cognizant that it could come to a quick end, his mother said.
He started his own handyman business and later got a job doing maintenance at a hotel. For fun he would go water skiing, bowling, camping, fishing and attend local school sporting events.
"As long as there's a breath in a person there's a fight, or there should be fight," said Beach's mother, Bobbi Clincher. "To one of my friends today I said, 'Will it ever end?" It's just been unending ... But there are other courts in the land, and you just continue to do what you have to do."
Beach's attorney, Peter Camiel, suggested there could be ways to get the case before the federal courts again, or even the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This case is not over. There could be more to this story," Camiel said. "This is a big setback, but it is not the end."