Retired judge, Mont. Innocence Project weigh in on clemency application


MISSOULA, Mont. - Retired Fergus County District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips granted Barry Beach a new trial in 2011 and freed him on bail.

Now that he's not on the bench, Phillips is a board member for the Montana Innocence Project, a statewide organization that works to exonerate the innocent and prevent wrongful convictions.

The project has followed Beach's case for years.

In 1984 Beach was convicted for the 1979 murder of Poplar teen Kimberly Nees. A judge sentenced him to 100 years in prison without parole.

Beach maintains he was coerced to confess during intense interrogation.

"It was very clear that if Barry Beach were to be sentenced in today's day and age, for a heinous murder, he already would have served the maximum sentence that is generally handed out in the United States," Phillips said of his 2011 decision. "I determined that he should have an opportunity for freedom."

His decision was ultimately reversed by the Montana Supreme Court and Beach went back to prison in 2013.

But those 18 months Phillips gave Beach served as a platform for people who spoke in his support at Tuesday's meeting. Three members of Montana's Board of Pardons and Parole listened to 20 people, many of them saying Beach has already proved he can be a productive member of society. He had a job, a home, and was planning for the future.

Co-founder of the Montana Innocence Project Dan Weinberg is one of those supporters. He's been working with this case for years and agrees that if Beach is let out he'll be successful again.

"He was a very productive person in his community, he worked two jobs at times," Weinberg said.

Members of the Montana Innocence Project know Beach won't be exonerated.

"That's not going to happen," Weinberg said.

But the fight isn't over. Weinberg and Phillips are hopeful the board will take all of the support, the proof from Beach's 18 months in the community and the time he's already served very seriously when making a decision on whether to accept the application for clemency.

"That's the best we can hope for at this point," Weinberg said. "We expect that it will happen, but it's not easy."

"This whole idea of what the sentence would be in this modern age would be just one of the factors on their list," Phillips said.

The board has about a month to make a decision on whether to accept Beach's application for clemency. If it is accepted Beach will get a clemency hearing. If it is denied, his sentence will stand.