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Beach's legal team also notes that during the opening statements of Beach's trial, Marc Racicot, the prosecutor from the Montana Attorney General's Office, said that a forensic scientist from the State Crime Lab would present the jury with a pubic hair found at the crime scene. Racicot specifically told the jury that the scientist "will tell you ... that this hair located on the sweater of Kim Nees was in fact the defendant's."
That hair was never proven to be Beach's. Nor was it introduced in court, because Steve Greyhawk breached the evidence room. Beach's attorney, Peter Camiel, believes that Racicot's comments about the hair still influenced the verdict.
"You can't get that out of the jury's mind," he said.
McCloskey acknowledged that it may seem odd for Beach to confess to a crime he didn't commit. McCloskey once believed it was odd himself. But after years of working with the wrongly convicted, he knows better.
McCloskey said roughly 20 percent of the 51 exonerated Centurion clients admitted to a crime that they did not commit. Of the 300 DNA-based exonerations across the U.S. to date, roughly 25 percent of them made incriminating statements, pleaded guilty or falsely confessed.
- photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
- Beach, pictured in 2006, served 29 years in prison before his release in 2011. The Montana Supreme Court’s recent decision could put him back behind bars.
"I've come to understand that we human beings are a malleable species, we're not as strong as we think we are," McCloskey said. "Until you're faced with that situation—being alone in a room, being browbeaten by authoritative police officers one after the other, hour after hour after hour, they wear you down. They scare you to death. It's a very coercive environment. You will do anything to get out of that room ... They get psychologically and emotionally and physically worn to the nub."
In 2007, during Beach's three-day clemency hearing before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, the prosecutor, Racicot, conceded that the crime investigation was "a mess." Despite the mistakes, he also said that he remained convinced that Beach killed Nees.
The detectives that secured Beach's confession also continued to stand by their work. They testified during the clemency hearing that prior to his admission, Beach "was allowed snacks, drinks, cigarettes, and bathroom breaks."
Louisiana detective Alfred Calhoun denied threatening Beach with the electric chair, as Beach alleged. Calhoun said that Beach's confession came willingly and was bolstered by its emotional nature. Beach told detectives that he had a tendency to "fly off the handle" and dealt with frustration in a "physical way."
Law enforcement and prosecutors persuaded the parole board to discount Beach's claims. According to the board, "the facts simply did not unfurl as they were alleged and characterized in the Centurion Ministries claims. The multiple eyewitnesses, the allegations of physical evidence of the 'real killers' being ignored by law enforcement—either crooked or inept—did not materialize. We have great sympathy for those who read only the Centurion Ministries allegations and became alarmed, because that was our experience; but those allegations were not demonstrated as true even with the very wide latitude afforded Centurion Ministries—the facts simply have not been demonstrated to be as representatives for Mr. Beach have alleged. Mr. Beach's culpability has been contested vigorously and eloquently, but we have found that contest to be lacking in substance."
Despite the parole board's findings, Roosevelt County District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips found Beach's arguments persuasive during the 2011 hearing to vet whether Beach's legal team had in fact discovered new evidence. The judge specifically noted in his opinion that Steffanie Eagle Boy was among the most compelling witnesses to testify. Eagle Boy wept on the stand in front of the crowded courtroom as she recalled being 10 years old and hearing the screams of enraged women early in the morning of June 16, 1979.
- photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
- In the early days of Beach’s imprisonment, he prayed that God would end his life. He contemplated suicide “because you just can’t do another day of it,” he said.
Eagle Boy lived on a bluff above the Poplar River that overlooks the area where Nees was killed. She testified that on the night that Nees died, she and a cousin were sitting on a rock on the edge of the bluff when they saw two vehicles enter the train bridge area. She told the court that she heard girls yelling, "'Get her,'" and, "'Get the bitch, kick the bitch.'"
Eagle Boy added that a police car with lights joined the two vehicles parked at the train bridge area. She said the police car shut off its lights and she heard digging sounds and the clinking of tools. Eagle Boy said in court that the girls' voices were, "High pitched, angry... It's something I'll never forget. I've had nightmares all my life about it. It's something I won't forget."
The state dismissed Eagle Boy's testimony, arguing that it was highly unlikely she could have heard the girls yelling from her perch on the bluff. But shortly after Beach's evidentiary hearing, Fort Peck Journal reporter Louis Montclair decided to conduct an experiment. He gathered several female friends at the train bridge and cued them to recreate the sounds that a group of angry women would have made. He asked them to yell, "Kill the bitch."
"We got the cops called on us twice," Montclair recalled.
That experiment proved to Montclair that Eagle Boy could have heard Nees' murder from the bluff.
The Montana Supreme Court's ruling, however, essentially discounted Eagle Boy's version and the others who testified at the 2011 evidentiary hearing.
Before Beach heard the news of the Supreme Court decision, he talked about being happy. His tidy home on a quiet, tree-lined street offered plenty of room to do woodworking in the garage. In the workshop, he built a squirrel feeder that hanged outside his house. A sickly squirrel that Beach called "Charlie" lived on his back porch. Beach fed it by hand. He referred to his four fish in a small tank in the living room as his "kids." A cottontail rabbit that Beach called "Baby Girl" sometimes accompanied him as he roasted s'mores under the moonlight in a backyard fire pit.
Beach admitted that he does get angry when he thinks about the resources the state has committed to preserving his conviction. But a few weeks ago, as he continued to wait for the Supreme Court's ruling, he said the emotion quickly passes.
"Am I going to give them the satisfaction of sitting here and worrying about what they may do?" he asked. "No. Absolutely not. Life is as simple as ice cream and I'm here to try every flavor there is. When they come down with their ruling, I'll deal with whatever comes my way at that time. Today I'm free."