Cruel and unusual

How the justice system failed Barry Beach

| May 23, 2013

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that Barry Beach murdered Kim Nees in Poplar in 1979. We did say as much in 1984, when a Roosevelt County court found Beach guilty and sentenced him to 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole. As Montanans, we have commissioned such courts to do our justice for us, and so we must say that Beach is guilty.

We briefly changed our collective minds in 2011, when District Judge Wayne Phillips granted Beach a new trial. We said we needed to reconsider, and for 18 months he was free. Then, on May 14, the Montana Supreme Court overruled Phillips and sent Beach back to prison, where he will probably spend the rest of his life.

So let us say that Beach killed Nees. That's the way murder works: You have a body, and so you need to send someone to prison. That was the approach that Louisiana detectives took in 1983, when they arrested the 20-year-old Beach on misdemeanor charges for taking in his 14-year-old stepsister, who had run away.

Those detectives believed firmly in the murder-needs-a-murderer approach to crime. They had their own local murder to solve, and they interrogated Beach for three days before he confessed not only to killing Nees, but also to killing a Louisiana woman named Kathy Wharton.

A judge invalidated that part of Beach's confession when it was contradicted by evidence. Later that year, the same detectives extracted a confession to the Wharton murder from two other men, who served 24 years before they were exonerated by DNA evidence. We cannot know whether those detectives coerced Beach, because the tape recordings and notes from his interrogation were destroyed.

But let's say we do not care about that. Let us say that even though Beach confessed to killing Wharton—a murder he could not possibly have committed—during the same interrogation where he confessed to killing Nees, and even though the men who interrogated him went on to extract false confessions from two other people for the same crime later that year, we do not believe he deserves a new trial.

Again, we did say as much on May 14, through our duly appointed agents in the Montana Supreme Court. After convicting the 22-year-old Beach of murder, leaving him in prison for 29 years and then letting him out for 18 months, we are putting him back in jail. Justice, as we say, has been done.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

And what has been Barry Beach's experience of the system we say is justice? When his classmate at Poplar High was murdered, police in Roosevelt County interrogated him along with several other local boys. Years later, when he got picked up for contributing to the delinquency of his stepsister, different police interrogated him for the same murder until he confessed. A court gave the report of that confession more weight than Beach's denial, and then, three decades later, another court dismissed evidence he deserved a new trial as "hearsay."

So let's say that Beach is a murderer, since we have already insisted so at considerable cost to our dignity. Even given the awfulness of what he did when he was 17, is it justice to imprison him for three decades, set him free for a year and a half and then send him back to prison again?

I would say that is cruel. It is certainly unusual. I would never say that Barry Beach killed Kim Nees, because I do not have enough evidence to know either way. But there is substantial evidence to say that the state of Montana has done something to him that it should not do to anyone, for any reason.

But when all is said and done, we said that Beach killed Nees, and we did our justice. We put him in a cell for 30 years, let him out for 18 months and then put him back. It doesn't matter whether we say Beach is guilty or innocent now, because the Supreme Court has had the last word on our behalf. Barring a long-shot federal appeal or an executive pardon, Beach will spend the rest of his life in jail, turning over a slightly fresher memory of freedom than the other men we sent there 30 years ago.

Barring an executive pardon—that feels good to say, doesn't it? It suggests that even if we made a terrible mistake in saying Beach was guilty, we could still take it back. It says that even if Beach did kill Kim Nees, the awful thing we have done to him might still be undone, with a three-decade punishment already served.

We good people of Montana do not have to say that we put a kid in prison on thin evidence, let him out as a middle-aged man and then put him back again. We could still do justice to Barry Beach, murderer or not. All Gov. Steve Bullock has to do is say the words.

Dan Brooks writes about about politics, consumer culture and lying at


Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

Not one piece of physical evidence puts Barry at the scene of this crime. Marc Racicot committed prosecutorial misconduct by saying in his opening statement he would introduce certain evidence but never did.He just wanted to plant a seed of doubt. Confessions me zero zip nada when you realize they also coerced him into confessing to two other murders that later DNA evidence proved who the real killer was. You keep someone awake long enough and lie to them long enough you can get anyone to confess to anything. And the detective that got that confession has a long list of disciplinary problems and several of the other confessions he coerced from men were later released by being cleared by DNA evidence. So William Barchet get your facts straight.

Posted by BJ Drwenski on 02/05/2014 at 9:20 PM

Thank you, Dan Brooks, for an engaging treatment of a difficult subject.

Accumulating reports of exonerations in cases like Barry Beach's highlight the unreliability of coerced confessions, especially from young defendants. In New York City in 1989, for example, detectives extracted confessions to a brutal assault and rape from not one but five teenagers, in the well publicized "Central Park Jogger" incident. All five were convicted and served full terms. The convictions were vacated in 2002, however, when a known rapist confessed to the crime, and DNA testing confirmed that only his semen was found at the scene.

What's needed is police interrogation techniques that are aimed at getting to the truth, not focused narrowly on confirming a suspicion. You can see a pair of officers employing the traditional approach on a teenage mother whose child had just died by following the links on this blog posting:…

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Posted by Sue Luttner on 05/30/2013 at 11:55 AM

Hey Innocence Project....If you want to dig deeper into the corruption in the Montana legal me I can help....My mom died because of this system, my father has served 20 yrs because of this backwards system, my family fell apart because of this system, I have lived it for 2 decades...I want and need to do something to save the me.

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Posted by Crystal Combs on 05/30/2013 at 10:18 AM

Oh my Lord. Written by a man who obviously has no experience with the American criminal justice system. He also left out a great deal regarding Mr. Beach and his DETAILED confession, which contained information that only someone with knowledge of the murder would know.

If you want to discuss cruel and unusual treatment of people this is the wrong case to follow.

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Posted by Nada on 05/29/2013 at 6:09 PM

Its sad the system failed Barry. Sex Offenders across this country has more lienency! Let the man out.

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Posted by Bernice Seminole on 05/28/2013 at 10:44 PM

Please consider signing this petition calling on the State of Montana to free Barry Beach:…

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Posted by Jessie McQuillan on 05/28/2013 at 4:48 PM

How do you sleep at night? I bet quit well, BUT someday when you meet our maker he will judge you of YOUR CRIMES that you did on Barry Beach. I sure wouldn't want to be yall that is for sure. He is the Big Judge and Jury. You know he Did't do this crime either of them, YOU have to live with this and when YOU DIE God will Judge you on what you did to him all these years. God is watching YOU ALL. God Bless you Barry Beach, May the Moon and Stars look down upon you as they always will in Your Glory with God and give you Peace always.

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Posted by Roland-Youroski TerrieandBob on 05/28/2013 at 4:36 PM

There was no evidence whatsoever that Barry committed that awful crime, just the confession of a scared young man. There are other cases that false confessions are coerced out of innocent men just so the police have someone to blame. It was very cruel to let him out and then send him back.

The 18 months he was out, there was nothing but exemplary conduct on his part, going to many religious ceremonies within the native american community and out. Talking at many different places regarding his experiences.

Thirty years is enough time for him, especially that he is innocent, this is not justice.

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Posted by Terri Thornell on 05/28/2013 at 4:30 PM

The mistake was putting him in, not letting him out. So the mistake has not been corrected, but instead, made twice.

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Posted by A. Pedro on 05/26/2013 at 8:05 PM

the mistake was letting him out not putting him back so the mistake has been corrected

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Posted by William Barchet on 05/25/2013 at 2:09 PM
Showing 1-10 of 10

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