Former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
Current U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Retired state Supreme Court Justice James Nelson.
This is not a group that usually hangs in the same circle. After all, Tester knocked Burns out of office, and Schweitzer's only real friend is his dog Jag. But these four leaders are now joined together as part of the ever-growing contingent of supporters calling for the state's Board of Pardons and Parole to do the right thing and recommend that Barry Beach be freed from prison.
The current letter-writing campaign is just the latest effort to help Beach. After years of small victories followed by devastating setbacks, who knows if it's going to work. But the mounting momentum and high-profile influence appears as promising as anything for finally settling this saga.
Beach's story has been told and re-told by state and national media. He was sentenced to 100 years in prison for the 1979 murder of 17-year-old Kim Nees. Beach confessed to the crime in 1983, but weeks later claimed he only "broke weak" after seven hours of a threatening interrogation. He's vehemently maintained his innocence ever since. No physical evidence ever tied him to the crime scene.
New evidence suggests a group of teenage girls may have committed the murder, and groups like Centurion Ministries fought for a new trial. On Dec. 7, 2011, a district court judge ruled that Beach did, in fact, deserve another day in court and freed him. Eighteen months later the Montana Supreme Court overturned the decision and returned Beach to prison.
"I don't understand," Beach told the Indy upon hearing the news.
And how could he? After decades of fighting for his innocence and months of touring the state to talk to students and religious groups about his story, he's been jerked back and forth by a broken judicial system.
All Beach has ever asked for is a chance to prove his innocence. At this point, his supporters would settle for simply letting him live his life outside of prison. The hundreds of letters sent to the board seek only to reduce his sentence and make him eligible for parole. That doesn't seem much to ask, especially considering the extraordinary circumstances. But even if the parole board listens to the letter campaign and offers its recommendation in favor of Beach, it'll take one more prominent endorsement to get him out of jail. Surely Gov. Steve Bullock won't mind joining the names at the top of this column.