The long, strange tale of convicted killer Barry Beach takes another turn Tuesday in Deer Lodge, Montana.
Dozens of Beach supporters gathered as three members of Montana's Board of Pardons and Parole prepared to take public comment on Beach's latest request for Executive Clemency.
Dateline has been following the Beach story for more than six years. Beach is serving a sentence of 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1979 murder of high school classmate Kim Nees, in the remote northeastern Montana town of Poplar. Beach claims his confession to the murder was coerced. No physical evidence connects him to the crime. He has already served more than 30 years in prison.
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(In a related note: the Louisiana detective who took Beach’s confession in 1983, Jay Via, died suddenly of natural causes at his home in Monroe, Louisiana on Sunday, according to the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office)
Last week, Montana Governor Steve Bullock took the unusual step of writing to the board to support Beach's request for clemency. It is the Governor who has the ultimate power to commute Beach's sentence or grant him clemency, but only if the BOPP recommends it.
Today's hearing is the first step in Beach's continuing quest for freedom. The three member panel is expected to decide within 30 days whether or not to move forward with Beach's application. If members vote yes, a full investigation and review is expected to take another three to four months. If the full board recommends clemency, Governor Bullock has indicated he would sign Beach's petition.
"I am optimistic about Barry's prospects," said Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey group that has been fighting for Beach's freedom for more than 15 years.
It was Centurion and its team of attorneys and investigators who were instrumental in providing evidence that led a Montana district judge in 2011 to grant Beach a new trial and free him from prison for the first time in nearly three decades. But after 18 months of freedom, in 2013 Montana's Supreme Court voted 4-3 to reverse the lower court's ruling, and sent Beach back to Montana's State Prison to serve the remainder of his sentence. Without a change in that sentence, Beach will die behind bars.
More than 200 people have written to the Board to back Beach's petition for clemency, including current U.S. Senator John Tester, former U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, and Billings Mayor Tom Hanel.
This is the second time Beach has applied for clemency. The BOPP turned Beach down in 2007.
The Board will have three weeks to make a decision, according to NBC News affiliate KECI.