Up in the northeast corner of Montana, hours and hours by car from the big rustic ranches of the famously wealthy, is the winding Missouri River of Lewis and Clark -- and a small, forgotten town which once carried the stain of an unenviable reputation.
Poplar is the name of the place. A generation ago, it was so frequently soaked in the blood of violent death it was known as "stab city."
This is a vexing story about how a mystery may have been solved.
It happened in 1979. Summer was here. School was out. The party was on.
Kim Nees, 17, school valedictorian, national honors graduate, was celebrating. She was finally about to escape this town for college.
Pam Nees: I was a little sister, she was a big sister. I was a pain in the butt…
Back then, Kim’s sister Pam was just 14.
Pam Nees: She always had to take me with her, and that was the way it is, you know?
But around midnight, June 15, 1979, Kim was restless. She wanted out -- this time without her little sister.
Pam Nees: Just come and got the truck. Didn't say what she was doing. Didn't say where she was going.Keith Morrison: And she took off?Pam Nees: Yes.
The scene is burned into her memory, as is the face of her father in the morning, less than eight hours later.
Pam Nees: He carried me upstairs and sat me next to my mom and said, “something terrible has happened.” He said, “Kimmy's dead.” And I just…Keith Morrison: You go numb?Pam Nees: It still sometimes isn't there, you know? It's like -- I can't believe this.
At 7 a.m., at a well known party spot just half a mile outside town, police had found the family pick-up abandoned. Officers followed a trail of blood from the truck, down a rutted dirt track 250 feet or so, to the Poplar River. There they found the battered body of Kim Nees.
Dean Mahlum: The term I have used is overkill.
Dean Mahlum was an undersheriff, and later the county sheriff, in charge of the murder investigation.
Mahlum: There were 20 or 21 blows received to Kim’s skull, any of which could have caused her death.Keith Morrison: There was rage involved?Mahlum: There was a high level of rage. Someone was very angry.
We drove an old truck, from the same year, but different color, to the last place Kim was seen: a gas station, at about 12:45 a.m.
Then we drove to the crime scene itself, where, that night, there was no shortage of evidence.
Blood was everywhere inside the cab of the pick-up.
There were more than two dozen fingerprints.
Foot prints were left in and around the trail where Kim’s body was dragged to the river.
And on the truck, near the passenger door, there was a palm print in what appeared to be blood.
The FBI prepared a report. The bloody palm print, it said, would have to have been 'left by the unsub.'
That's FBI lingo for an unknown subject.
Mahlum: We worked very, very very hard at determining whose that was. And obviously we had a very vested interest in talking to that person.
In addition, a sweep through town had turned up what the FBI called an 'extremely bloody towel' on a fence in town, less than a mile from the crime scene. A lab report linked two hairs on the towel to Kim Nees and said the 'hair evidence suggests a possible connection between the towel' and the murder.
Keith Morrison: Was that blood on the towel ever tested?Mahlum: I believe it was sent to the Montana state lab. It was not Kim’s blood that was on the towel.
Did the blood, then, belong to her killer? Kim’s cash and credit cards were still in her purse. This was not a robbery. Nor was there any indication of sexual assault.
The lack of any apparent motive in the murder of a pretty 17-year-old girl led many people to wonder if perhaps the standard crime scene scenarios did not apply.
In fact, rumors were already around town that this was not a man who committed the murder, or a woman even, but a group of girls -- Kim’s contemporaries. Their supposed motive? Jealousy. Kim was attractive, she was successful, she was class valedictorian, boys loved her and she was about to leave Poplar behind for good.
Keith Morrison: There were stories around town that this may have been some kind of killing involving some local girls.Mahlum: That was one of the, again, if you will, the theories that folks around town had. That there may have been three or four of Kim’s peers that were involved with her death.
Bobbi Clincher heard the talk. She lived down the block from the Nees family.
Keith Morrison: What did you hear?Clincher: Her grandfather had told me they're looking at the girls. He said all indications are that it was girls.
A list of names appeared on FBI documents -- those girls, and Kim's boyfriend, too.
Clincher: I felt bad for her parents.
Bobbi Clincher's connection to the Nees family was more than neighborly. Her son, Barry, had even dated Kim’s sister Pam.
Like many kids in town, Barry had been listed as a suspect in the documents, too.
As the mystery deepened, mothers and fathers questioned their own children, wondering if there was some code of silence they could crack.
Keith Morrison: Did you question him harshly about it or...?Bobbi Clincher: Yes. He said repeatedly he didn't know anything about it. The only thing he knew was what he had heard, what he'd been told.
And as the investigation stalled, the Nees family took it upon themselves to try to solve Kim’s killing themselves, writing heart-rending letters to the local paper.
Keith Morrison: Your dad tried very hard and your family, your whole family tried hard to get people to help. Pam Nees: Yeah, we put out a $10,000 reward.Keith Morrison: Begging for help. How did the community respond?Pam Nees: They didn't. Keith Morrison: At all?Pam Nees: Not really. It seemed like they didn't care.
Summer passed, and so did fall and winter.
More names surfaced. More fingerprints were compared. These were more dead ends.
Keith Morrison: Did you ever kind of give up on the idea that you'd figure it out?Mahlum: No. Never. There was no doubt in my mind that we would solve this, this homicide.
And the sheriff's patience would be rewarded, but the answers he was sure he would get would wait for years -- and come from a place he never would have suspected.
By 1983, Kim should have been finishing college.
Instead, after almost four years, investigators seemed no closer to finding the killer or killers who'd beaten her to death and dumped her body in the Poplar River.
The Nees family had long since left town, shattered.
Pam Nees: My mom and I never really talked about it. We went our separate ways.Keith Morrison: It's almost like your lost your mother too?Pam Nees: Yes. My dad, he always had to have it together because one of us would not be having it together, you know?
Years of trying to match those fingerprints found at the murder scene, and that telltale bloody palm print had come to nothing. Suspects -- classmates, neighbors, even that group of girls long whispered about -- had been investigated and, apparently, cleared.
But a break in the case was about to come, and from across the country, in the town of Monroe, La.
It was January, 1983. Sheriff Dean Mahlum picked up the phone one day and found himself talking to a detective from way down south.
Mahlum: He asked if I was aware of an individual by the name of Barry Beach. Wanted to know if Mr. Beach was or had ever been a suspect in a homicide in Roosevelt County.
Barry Beach. He was the son of that neighbor who'd been so upset about the murder.
The boy, now a man of nearly 21, who'd once dated the victim's sister, Pam.
Beach had not quite found a purpose in life by then. He had gone to Louisiana to be with his father and stepmother. He and didn't see eye to eye with them
In fact, his stepmother had Beach arrested on a minor charge and then told police the boy was once a suspect in an unsolved Montana murder.
Well, it just so happened that investigators in Louisiana were scratching their heads over the murders of three women here in Monroe. Could Beach be their killer?
They decided to call the Montana sheriff and ask some questions about Beach.
And the sheriff told them about a polygraph Beach had been given a couple years back in Montana.
Mahlum (former sheriff): Barry would never respond, “I didn't kill her. I did not do that.” It was things like, “I don't think I could have done that. I don't remember,” those types of things. Keith Morrison: You had a hunch?Mahlum: I would say something that was a lot stronger than a hunch.Jay Via: My feeling from talking to Sheriff Mahlum was the fact that he was a viable suspect.
Jay Via was that Louisiana detective calling the Montana sheriff. He soon discovered that Beach had met one of the Louisiana victims. So now he wondered, could Beach be a serial killer?
Keith Morrison: What made you think that maybe he was the kind of guy who would be your prime suspect?Jay Via: The fact that he was a suspect in a murder already. The fact that he did have contact with one of our victims. We felt an obligation to look at him seriously as a person of interest in those investigations.
So the detective conducted a series of interviews with Barry Beach over two days here at the Ouachita (pronounced “washtaw”) Parish sheriff's office to determine Barry’s truthfulness, especially about the killing of Kim Nees.
Via: When we'd get up to the point of her murder, you know, we asked him “Were you responsible?” And during this part of the interview he kept saying, “I don't remember if I was or not.” It was not a denial. It was “I don't remember.”
Soon, the detective was joined in his work by Commander Alfred Calhoun, known in these parts, when it came to murder investigations, as something of a closer.
Jay Via: Alfred stepped out of the interview room and said “he wants to talk to you.” And so when I walked in the room Barry was crying, and he admitted to killing Kim Nees.
A tape recorder was turned on. And there it was, Barry Beach confessed to killing Kim Nees.
Keith Morrison: You've heard a lot of confessions over the years. Via: Oh yes.Keith Morrison: And when you heard that one, had the ring of authenticity?Via: Oh, absolutely.
When he heard the news, the sheriff in Montana was convinced they had the real killer.
Mahlum: Absolutely. Absolutely. No question in my mind.Keith Morrison: On the basis of your own expertise?Mahlum: This confession is good. It's solid. He did it.
And why were authorities so sure Beach killed Kim Nees? It was his confession, the story he told. The afternoon before she was killed, Beach said, he'd come down to the river for a beer and a swim. And when it was time to go home, his car wouldn't go. He lost his temper, got furious, walked home, went to bed.
But then Beach said he woke up around midnight and went for a walk. Kim picked him up in the car, they went for a drive, smoked a joint. And when she rebuffed his sexual advances, he became enraged. He picked up a crescent wrench from the floor of the truck, beat her, chased her outside, found a tire iron -- a possible second weapon police said they hadn't told anybody about -- and finished her off.
And then Beach said he'd put Kim’s body in a plastic garbage bag, and dragged it down here to the river and threw it in. He threw the murder weapons in there too, and took his own bloody clothes to a railway car and burned them. And then he went home. That was his story, his words. And detectives thought it was consistent with the evidence. They felt it all finally made sense.
The mystery was solved.
All the rumors about other suspects, including that group of girls long whispered of in connection with the crime, were apparently wrong.
Barry Beach said that he alone killed Kim Nees. And after? Authorities in Louisiana allowed him to call and break the news to his mother, back in Montana.
Bobbi Clincher: He said “Mom, I confessed to it.” And I said “Barry, why did you confess to something you didn't do?” And he said, “Well, they're going to come back to Montana and they're going to help me prove that I didn't do this.”
Cops from Louisiana going to help her son prove he didn't commit the Montana murder he'd just confessed to? That sounded strange.
Keith Morrison: What did you think when you heard that?Bobbi Clincher: I was like, “Whoa, what's going on here?”
But when word reached the victim's sister, Pam, Barry’s onetime-girlfriend, she was aghast.
Keith Morrison: What was your sense of it then? Of the possibility that he'd actually done this?Pam Nees: I just couldn't believe that he would do that, or that he would even be around her.
But despite Pam’s doubts, Barry Beach was about to go on trial -- and make astonishing claims about what really led to that confession.
By the fall of 1983, Barry Beach was back in Montana to stand trial for the murder of Kim Nees, a trial many thought to be a mere formality.
All those whispers -- the rumors about girls from the town of Poplar being the real killers, must've been -wrong.
After all, Barry Beach had confessed to her murder. What more was there to say?
Well, actually, there was quite a bit more.
Keith Morrison: You weren't exactly a choir boy, were you?Barry Beach: No, sir. I was your very typical small-town teen. I drove fast cars, I liked rock'n'roll, I drank.Keith Morrison: To excess, occasionally?Beach: To excess quite often.Keith Morrison: Smoked a joint once in a while?Beach: Yes, sir. I used dope.Keith Morrison: And you liked to party?Beach: Every chance I got, to be honest with you.
In fact, by the time he was 18, Beach had two DUIs and had spent close to a month in jail for traffic offenses.
And on the day of the murder, in June 1979, Barry says, he was doing the usual: drinking too much, smoking some dope, and swimming in the Poplar River outside town, when his car broke down.
Beach: I was mad at my car. I actually ended up hitting my vehicle several times in the door. I banged my fist on the windshield. I vented my anger.
He was then forced to walk the mile back into town, Beach says, with a good buzz on, and no one at home when he finally arrived. His bed looked awfully inviting.
Beach: I actually just went straight upstairs to my bedroom and went to sleep.Keith Morrison: What time was this?Barry Beach: That was somewhere between 5 and 6 o'clock in the evening.
Barry Beach says that's where he stayed the night Kim Nees was killed: in bed.
But what about that detailed confession he gave to detectives in Louisiana?
Well, that's where it gets interesting. Beach doesn't deny that he confessed to the killing. Far from it.
Keith Morrison: You said you killed that girl up in Montana.Beach: Yes, sir, I said that on tape. That I killed Kim Nees.
And that's when the story enters the twilight zone. Barry Beach says he believed he was about to be released from prison, those minor charges called in by his step-mother about to be dropped, when suddenly he found himself in an interrogation room, answering questions about murder. Those detectives seemed to think he had committed those three unsolved Louisiana murders -- those murders they were trying so very hard to solve.
Beach: The next thing I know, they got very accusatory and started not only telling me that I knew these girls, but that I had killed them. And then they started showing me pictures of dead bodies and told me, “Remember doing this?” And I was telling them, I’d say “I didn't do it, I didn't kill anyone.”
And as the day wore on, Beach claims, it was Commander Alfred Calhoun who ratcheted up the pressure.
Beach: He promised me that he would personally see me fry in the Louisiana electric chair and then he spent half an hour to an hour explaining to me the different effects of a person when they are electrocuted. All the way from their hair being singed and catching on fire, how it affects your heart when the electricity hits your body.Keith Morrison: The kind of thing that sticks in a person's mind.Beach: It was intense. He was extremely angry, yelling at me.Keith Morrison: What were you feeling in the middle of all this?Beach: I was scared to death, Keith. But I knew that he would convict me, he would execute me if given the chance.
Then, says Beach, the talk turned to that murder in Montana: the murder of Kim Nees.
Keith Morrison: You were asked to speculate about how she may have been killed?Beach: Yes, sir. Well, it started off that they asked me to speculate how it happened and then I was asked to give a hypothetical story using myself as the perpetrator.
By that time, says Beach, he was terrified. Would say just about anything to get out of there. He says he remembers his interrogator telling him he could work to prove his innocence later back in Montana if he just confessed now. And so, though his memory is rather fuzzy, he says that is what he did.
Keith Morrison: Do you remember any of what you said?Beach: I don't deny that the confession took place, I don't remember all the details.Keith Morrison: Barry, come on. I really don't think I’m going to tell a police officer I killed a girl if I didn't kill her.Beach: That is hard for most people in America to believe that a person could be led to confess to a crime they did not commit…Keith Morrison: But why would you do it?Beach: I was a 20-year-old kid, 2,300 miles from my real home. They scared me so bad I would have said anything to get away from them.Keith Morrison: Just to make it stop?Beach: Anything to make it stop.
And so, Barry Beach now says he confessed to a crime he did not commit.
But in 1984, as authorities in Montana prepared to put Beach on trial for murder, there were complications. That tape recorded confession of Barry Beach's? Somehow, it was gone.
Jay Via: I went to pull the tapes out of evidence and the custodian of records said he'd erased the tape. And we went ballistic. Because this was a murder investigation!Keith Morrison: This stuff's not supposed to be erased.Via: The reason given to us is that this was an out-of-state case. It wasn't ours.
But detectives breathed a sigh of relief: Jay Via himself had made a transcript of the confession. And, then there was another bombshell, this time from the police department in Montana.
It turned out that shortly before the trial, a pubic hair had been found on Kim Nees's sweater, itself strangely found folded neatly near the truck.
A scientist said the hair had 'characteristics' similar to the hair of Barry Beach, but couldn't tell if it was Barry’s -- just that it could have been.
But just before the trial began, there was another stunning development: Poplar's police chief came forward to reveal that the night after the murder, somebody – deliberately, he said -- broke into the room where Kim Nees' sweater and the other crime scene evidence was stored. Somebody actually kicked down the door and broke open a padlock, even though the signs quite clearly said keep out. And the person who did it was a police officer -- and the father of one of the girls listed as the original suspects.
So when the trial began at the courthouse in Glasgow, Mont., there'd be no confession on tape to play for the jury. They'd read Jay Via's transcript instead.
That one strand of hair that might have been used as physical evidence to connect Beach to the crime was ruled out, too, since it had been compromised by that break in.
Still, the prosecutor was confident.
Marc Racicot: I had a detailed confession that only the killer could have given.
Within a decade, Marc Racicot would be elected Montana’s governor. And in 1984, he was an assistant Montana attorney general, called in to prosecute Barry Beach.
Racicot: He gave a very detailed confession that matched the things that were discovered at the crime scene. From the two different murder weapons to what he did with the body, why the blood spots were located where they were, by the truck and down by the river. On and on and on.
But what about all that other physical evidence that seemed to point not at Beach but toward one or more other attackers?
There were lots of fingerprints in and on the truck, and none of them belonged to Beach.
There were footprints on the drag trail from the truck to the river where Kim’s body was dumped. The footprints were not his, either.
That bloody towel, found in town, on which a couple of hairs could have been Kim Nees’?
The blood was not Barry Beach's.
The prosecutor told the jury to ignore it all, because police had contaminated the crime scene.
Racicot: This is not CSI Miami where people show up with the latest equipment, the latest capacity. They did the best they could with what they had available to them.
So did the prosecutor at trial. About, for example, that bloody palm print found on Kim Nees' truck? Remember an FBI report said if you find the owner of that print then you'll have found the killer -- and it didn't belong to Barry Beach. But the prosecutor told the jury that another FBI report suggested the print might have been left by Kim Nees herself. And so the jury could ignore that evidence too.
As the trial wore on, Barry Beach, sitting at the defendant's table, had a sinking feeling.
Keith Morrison: What did that feel like?Barry Beach: You want to scream at somebody and say “Wait a minute, you're wrong.” And you can't. The only thing you can do is sit there, and do as your attorney tells you to do. But man, I wanted to jump up and tell them they were wrong.
When testimony was finished, the jury was back in just six hours.
The verdict: guilty.
For Barry Beach's mother, it was devastating.
Keith Morrison: Do you remember that moment?Bobbi Clincher: It's something a person wouldn't ever forget.
The victim's sister, Pam, heard the news from her father.
Pam Nees: Yeah, he told me that he would never be able to get out and that it was over and…Keith Morrison: You didn't really feel a sense of relief, did you?Pam Nees: Yeah, I did. But then again it was also pain, you know like, why? Why him?Keith Morrison: Why would Barry do that?Pam Nees: Because he was never mean to me, you know? I didn't know him to be crazy or anything.
Yet at sentencing, Barry Beach's life was, for all intents and purposes, finished.
Beach: I looked the judge in the eye and I told him again I was innocent of this crime, and I asked for his mercy. I asked him to give me a chance to have a future. And he wouldn't do it.
Keith Morrison: How long is your sentence?Beach: I'm doing 100 years, dangerous. No parole. No furlough. Hard labor.
In the spring of 1984, Barry Beach entered Montana State Prison as a dead man walking. He'd surely die here, never be eligible for parole. Never have a chance.
By 2007, Barry Beach had spent more than half his life at Montana State Prison and similar lockups. Locked up at age 20 for the murder of Kim Nees, he'd watched his thirties come and go, and was now 45 years old. He'd never had a parole hearing, and he'd never get one. With a sentence of a 100 years, it was behind this forbidding wall of barbed wire that Barry Beach was destined to die.
Keith Morrison (Dateline NBC): You're the worst of the worst.Barry Beach: Obviously the judge felt that I should never see society again.Keith Morrison: You're not going to get out of here, are you?Beach: When they gave me 100 years that means they gave me 100 years to prove that I didn't commit the crime that put me behind prison bars.
And when Barry Beach sat down with us in January, 2007, he had spent decades, literally, proclaiming his innocence. Writing letters, filing appeals that time after time went nowhere. Asking for help. Would anyone, he wondered, ever listen?
Few did. Until one of those letters reached Jim McCloskey.
“We get 11- to 1,200 letters a year from people asking for our help,” said Rev. Jim McCloskey, the founder of a group called Centurion Ministries.
Back in 1980, McCloskey -- a former business executive then attending Princeton divinity school -- went to work as student chaplain at New Jersey's Trenton State Prison. There, he became involved in the case of a convict who was later revealed to be innocent. And the experience changed his life, too.
McCloskey: I started Centurion. This is my sense of spiritual calling to do this work. But we could care less if those whom we serve, the convicted innocent in prison, it doesn't matter, if they have any religious inclination at all.
And Centurion, running with a small staff of six people paid only through donations, has compiled quite a record: over 25 years, McCloskey's group has freed 40 wrongly convicted men and women from prison or death row.
Keith Morrison: So what does it feel like when one of these people gets out of prison?Jim McCloskey: Well, let me just say this. It doesn't get old! It's new and joyful every time.
But back in 1991, when Centurion received Barry Beach's first letter asking for help, it took six long years before a review was even begun.
Keith Morrison: Do you have to be convinced beyond any doubt that somebody is actually innocent?McCloskey: Yes, we do. We don't take a case on unless we are convinced of the person's innocence.
So when Centurion's team, which included attorney Peter Camiel and investigator Richard Hepburn, went to work reading reports and trial transcripts, they took a hard look at any clues that might have told them Barry Beach was or was not telling the truth.
Hepburn: When I read it originally, the fact that this 17-year-old youngster, not a master criminal, was able to create this havoc and not leave one single scintilla of evidence that he was even there … I was suspicious.Keith Morrison: Did anybody see him with the victim at all that day?Jim McCloskey: There's no evidence to say he wasn't home. Because nobody did see him.
But before Centurion would commit to the case, its investigators wondered: what about that confession taken by Louisiana detectives back in 1983? After all, Barry Beach was read his rights, again and again. Before he admitted to murder and then offered details of the crime, police said, only the killer would have known. How in the world could any serious investigation avoid those inescapable facts?
Keith Morrison: There is a signed confession! You ask anybody around the country – “of course he did it.”McCloskey: There have been over 200 men exonerated by DNA from sexual assaults or murder. Convicted, imprisoned, who have later been freed and exonerated. Twenty-five percent of those men have falsely confessed to that crime when arrested under interrogation.
So Centurion, knowing that false confessions do indeed occur, dug a little deeper. An expert conducted a detailed analysis of Beach's 13-page confession and made a remarkable discovery.
Beach's confession conflicted with the one thing investigators say never lies: the physical evidence at the crime scene.
What did he get wrong? Well, for one thing, Beach told his interrogators that Kim had tried to get away from him by scrambling out the -driver's- side door. But the evidence showed that she'd actually come out the -passenger- side door---right where that -still- unidentified bloody palm print was found.
Peter Camiel: All of the forensic evidence shows she was pulled out the passenger side. That's very clear from the blood spatter inside and outside the truck.
There was more: Beach told police his fingerprints weren't found on the truck because he wiped them off.
Centurion wondered: how could Beach wipe off his prints, but leave more than two dozen others undisturbed?
Then there was this: Beach told police he'd “put the body” in a plastic garbage bag “feet first” and then had dragged Kim down to the river by her shoulders. But the evidence showed Kim was dragged not by her shoulders, but by her feet.
And police found not one shred of any plastic garbage bag anywhere along the rocky trail from the pick-up to the river.
Finally, Beach told police he'd made at least three separate trips to the river to dispose of the murder weapons, then the body, then the truck keys and Kim’s jacket -- as if the river were mere yards away, rather than the length of a football field.
McCloskey: Barry's story, and that's all it is -- a story, and all the elements of the story do not comport with the forensic facts and circumstances of the case, the crime scene, and the way the crime unfolded.
And then, Centurion says it found something. Evidence, it would claim, was a smoking gun that something funny was going on. Information that suggested Poplar police were feeding information, through Louisiana detectives, straight into Barry Beach's confession.
Centurion found the transcript of a phone call that it claimed suggests Louisiana detective Jay Via believed the victim had been wearing a brown plaid shirt.
And sure enough, in Beach's confession, he described her clothes in nearly the same way. A brown sports jacket. A plaid polyester blouse.
Which would have been fine if it were true. But it was not.
In reality, Kim Nees’ shirt was blue. Her sweater, off-white.
Peter Camiel: After the confession, the Louisiana detective realizes that he heard the description of the clothing wrong from the Montana sheriff. So now they've got a problem, because Barry’s got the clothes wrong.Keith Morrison: So what do they do?Peter Camiel: They just discount it, maybe he didn't remember exactly what she was wearing. Explain it away.
Then, with a little digging, Centurion uncovered what it believed to be some pretty disturbing information about the Louisiana detectives.
Remember those three Louisiana murders the detectives questioned Beach about?
Well, months later, the same detectives filed charges against two men who had confessed to those murders.
But later, their charges would later be dropped. Their confessions were revealed to be false.
Camiel: So you have detectives with a track record of claiming that they've got detailed confessions with people with information “that only the killer could know.” And those are false confessions. It speaks volumes about what they claim to be the validity of Barry’s confession.
The doubts were adding up for Centurion. After coming to the conclusion that Beach's confession was false and contained facts that appeared to have been planted by police, its investigators made dozens of trips to Montana, searching for witnesses and physical evidence that might show Barry Beach was not the killer.
Remember, according to the state, the only physical evidence linking Beach to the murder was a pubic hair found on Kim Nees’ sweater. A hair an analyst said had 'similar characteristics' to the hair of Barry Beach. He didn't say it was Barry’s hair, sust that it could have been. But even that could not be introduced as an exhibit at trial, because that cop had broken into the evidence room.
So imagine Centurion's surprise when the trial transcript revealed that prosecutor Marc Racicot told the jury straight out in his opening statements that the pubic hair did belong to Barry Beach.
Keith Morrison: They told the jury there was evidence that they didn't actually have.Peter Camiel: That's right. So saying that they had a hair that a scientist has examined, that matched the defendant putting him at the crime scene, and not just a hair but a pubic hair, which is suggestive of some sexual motive in the crime … put in the minds of the jury that there was corroboration of this confession when there wasn't.Keith Morrison: Are you saying that that prosecutor in the trial actually crossed an ethical line in terms of what he failed to tell the jury and what he alleged to the jury that wasn't true?Peter Camiel: There was misconduct.
Although every court that has reviewed the case has disagreed and said there was no misconduct, Centurion pressed on.
They learned first that the analyst who linked the hair to Beach had been later fired for gross misconduct and incompetence.
Then, that the hair and all the other evidence from the case had disappeared from Montana’s crime lab.
Camiel: We asked the crime lab to allow us to have an expert go in, take a look at their record keeping and try to do an inventory to see if maybe they misfiled. Misplaced it. And the word was absolutely no. Nobody's coming into our crime lab.Keith Morrison: Any explanations?Camiel: No. They just say we're not going to let you in there.
But what about the evidence that does exist? The fingerprints and that bloody palm print?
Remember, none of those prints belonged to Barry Beach.
So Centurion wondered: couldn't those prints be compared with all the other potential suspects in the case?
McCloskey: How many police officers in this country investigating a homicide would love to have a foot print? And a bloody palm print and unidentified fingerprints? This is stuff you see on CSI. Does anybody care who that bloody palm print belongs to? Do you guys really care? If they really wanted to discover who that belonged to, they could do it, but they won't do it. And you know why? Because they're afraid of the truth. And they're afraid it would ultimately demonstrate that Barry Beach is innocent of this crime and he's sat in prison for a quarter century for something he didn't do.
But if Barry Beach did not kill Kim Nees, then who did?
Well that's what makes this case a little different. Because Centurion's team not only believes that Barry Beach is innocent, but that it knows who is guilty.
And you're about to hear from the witnesses who say they know the real story of what happened on that night so long ago.
By 2007, Barry Beach had been behind bars in Montana for 24 years. Now, after a decade of work, investigators from Centurion ministries had come to a conclusion: even though Beach confessed to killing Kim Nees back in the summer of 1979, he was, they believed, an innocent man.
Jim McCloskey, Centurion ministries: We have not developed any information that would tell us, hey, maybe Barry’s guilty. Because if we did, I can assure you that Centurion ministries would have dropped this case years ago and moved on to more fertile fields.Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: I can see the state saying you guys are just trying to be heroes at the expense of justice.McCloskey: We're not afraid of admitting we made a mistake. We've done it before, we'll probably do it again. But in this case I don't have any information that says we're wrong.
But it was the secrets in this old town that persuaded Centurion it had a different kind of case, that it was able to say not only that Barry Beach was innocent, but that it knew -- or thought it knew -- who might be the real killers. For 25 years the rumors had persisted that a group of girls killed Kim Nees. And now Centurion investigators encountered more than just rumors.
What did Centurion have to point to a group of killers?
Remember, the prosecution theory and Barry Beach's confession was that Beach alone killed Kim Nees at this popular party spot about a half-mile outside town near the Poplar River, sometime after 1:30 in the morning on June 16, 1979..
But listen to this witness found by Centurion: a rancher who says he saw Kim Nees’ pick-up at 2:30 a.m. heading out of Poplar, toward the spot where she was found dead just hours later.
Holen: What I remembered the most about it is the pickup was so full people.Keith Morrison: Could you tell if they were boys or girls?Holen: No, but I mean it was just full of people.
The state claims the rancher has changed his story since the days after the murder.
Keith Morrison: Could it be a false memory, do you think?Holen: No, I can see it.
And that sighting about 2:30 a.m. is key, says Centurion, because listen to what two more witnesses say they heard at that time from the area where Kim Nees was killed.
Jim McCloskey: What do we have that illustrates that she was killed around 2:30? We have Joel Sparvier and his mother overlooking the park. He hears screaming. His mother hears somebody yelling “help me, help me!” Screams, a high pitched female voice coming from the park.
Could they have heard the murder being committed?
Next, Centurion's investigators found a rancher who says he got a phone call just a couple hours later, before dawn.
O’Connor: It was from a lady by the name of Sissy Atkinson.
Sissy Atkinson is a name to remember.
O’Connor: She proceeded to tell me that they found Kim Nees’ body down by the train bridge.Keith Morrison: What did you think when you..?O’Connor: How does she know?
How indeed? Especially given the hour…
Keith Morrison: What time was it?O’Connor: Around five o'clock.
Five a.m.? How could anyone know that a body had been found two full hours before the police discovered it?
Keith Morrison: Did you ever tell the authorities what had happened?O’Connor: I might have mentioned it to the county. But I think it went in one ear and out the other, especially after they rounded up Beach.
Then there was this: Centurion's investigators found a man who said years later, he'd overheard Sissy Atkinson making incriminating statements in a factory where they both worked.
Carl Four Star: She was talking about the Kim Nees murder and how the wrong person got put in jail.Keith Morrison: What a strange thing to hear.Carl Four Star: It gave me the creeps you know, and as she walked by she looked at me and she said “We got away with the perfect crime.”Keith Morrison: She said that to you?Carl Four Star: Yeah, I just said “you stay the hell away from me.”
And finally, there is one more person who claims he heard Sissy Atkinson talk about the murder. It may be the last person you'd think would ever come forward.
This man's name is J.D. His last name? Atkinson. Yes, he’s Sissy Atkinson’s brother.
J.D. Atkinson: I think Kim Nees is looking over Sissy's shoulder all the time...
During a visit to Montana State Prison, where he was serving time on drug charges, we asked to see him. We asked if he had any information about the murder. To our surprise, he said yes. The story goes this way, says J.D. One night he and Sissy were talking, and she was high.
Keith Morrison: Did your sister Sissy tell you that she was there the night that Kim Nees was killed?J.D. Atkinson: Well, the way she said it was that they were partying down there…Keith Morrison: And there were other girls there too?J.Yes.Keith Morrison: How much did she get out before she dropped off?J.D. Atkinson: Just that one of those girls came running around the truck with a crescent wrench.
Remember, the medical examiner said at least one of the weapons that killed Kim Nees was likely a crescent wrench. But J.D. Atkinson said his sister passed out before saying any more.
Peter Camiel: One of the things we keep hearing from the state is that these girls, if they were involved, wouldn't have kept quiet. Somebody would've heard something over the years. And these people who have come forward did hear something. And they didn't keep quiet. And that's why it's important.
But after all these years, does it really add up to new evidence?
Keith Morrison: All you have is just a lot of hearsay evidence that says the hearsay evidence about Barry isn't really very good.Jim McCloskey: We claim it's not hearsay when you have Sissy Atkinson confessing to being one of four girls who are killing Kim. That's not hearsay, that's a confession.
We wondered: what would those girls named as suspects by Centurion in this long ago murder have to say about all this?
You're about to hear their side of the story, for the very first time.
"I had no knowledge of it," said Sissy Atkinson in an interview with Dateline NBC. "I was not there. I had no participation in it."
Sissy Atkinson is now 52 years old. She admits she’s an addict: cocaine, meth, painkillers.
And she was, perhaps understandably, not entirely happy about still facing questions from us, or Centurion, about this murder nearly three decades ago.
Sissy Atkinson: I told those ministry guys, I said when we all die and go to heaven and you guys find out that I had no knowledge of it, I was not there. I had no participation in it. I don't know who did it. I hope you guys will be gentlemen enough to come and find me in heaven and tell me you're sorry.
In fact, said Sissy, on the night of the murder she was indeed with that group of girls, the subjects of the rumor.
But she said that after buying beer for some underage teens at a local bar and the police coming by, she made a request to one of the girls.
Sissy Atkinson: So I said, “Could you please take me home, I don't want to be caught for contributing.” She drove me to my home and I went to bed.Keith Morrison: So you were in bed that night by when? Do you remember?Sissy Atkinson: Oh, 11.Keith Morrison: Eleven o'clock at night?Sissy Atkinson: Yes. Keith Morrison: Who can back up that alibi?Sissy Atkinson: Well, nobody. My mom's not here no more. And I lived with my mom. Just me and my mom and my baby. Keith Morrison: But she's the only one who could back up your alibi? And she's gone?Sissy Atkinson: Yes.Keith Morrison: You know, we've heard from maybe, I don't know, a half-dozen people who put you there that night.Sissy Atkinson: No.Keith Morrison: Not possible?Sissy Atkinson: Not possible whatsoever. It would make me go crazy if I knew that.Keith Morrison: Well that's the allegation. That it kind of did over the years. It may be the reason that you've had trouble with drugs is because…Sissy Atkinson: Oh no, there's different reasons.Keith Morrison: Why would we have witnesses who say that you said a few years after the murder that you got away with the perfect crime?Sissy Atkinson: No, and that never ever came out of my mouth. Never.
But what would Sissy Atkinson say when she learned that one of her accusers was her own flesh and blood?
Keith Morrison: Why would your own brother say that you started to tell him about how you were involved in that?Sissy Atkinson: What brother?Keith Morrison: J.D.Sissy Atkinson: J.D.? Oh, no. I don't even know what he's talking about. I’ve never talked to him about that. Ever.
Well, as you've seen, that's not what J.D. Atkinson told us during our interview at the Montana State Prison. So, we played the interview for his sister.
Sissy Atkinson: J.D.! I’m really going to confront him on this because he's tripping.Keith Morrison: Is it possible that it's blocked somehow…Sissy Atkinson: No. I 've got a very, very good memory.Keith Morrison: And I don't want to be cruel when I say this, but if you do have a really good memory, you're probably the only addict on the face of the earth that does. What is it going to take to stop the whispers?Sissy Atkinson: I don't know, I don't care. Because I’m not involved. Let them talk all they want.
And in fact, there is no physical evidence linking Sissy Atkinson to the crime scene. That bloody palm print? Not hers. No fingerprints, either.
Sissy Atkinson: I have been cleared of everything. Hand print. Everything. If I would've been down there I’m sure they would have found some kind of DNA on me. You know? Something?
After our interview with Sissy, we went looking for more of those girls, now women, whom witnesses have placed at the scene. Another name that comes up again and again is Maude Greyhawk. Her father was the police officer who kicked in the door to the evidence room the night after the murder. We repeatedly tried to reach her, but could not.
And a third name is Joanne Jackson. Like Sissy, Joanne claims to have been home in bed hours before the murder.
Jackson: I don't have any reason to be implicated in this whatsoever. I went home, I talked to my mother around 11 o'clock.Keith Morrison: And after that you have no idea what happened.Jackson: No.Keith Morrison: You were asleep the rest of the time?Jackson: Yes..
Joanne Jackson’s fingerprints and palm prints have also been compared to those left at the scene. No match. Yet Centurion says there are several others, at least four women and two men, who might have been there but their prints have never been compared.
Keith Morrison: A lot of kids were home by 11 o'clock that night, it turns out.Jackson: I don't know why. I just don't understand it. Because my sister was with me, that's the weird thing. You know they must have questioned her 10,000 times and she said the same thing.
So where does all this leave Barry Beach? What is the truth?
Well, Centurion's investigation would soon lead to something Beach had been seeking for decades: a remarkable hearing, unlike any ever held before in the state of Montana, maybe in all the United States. It was a new trial, of sorts, and a shot at freedom.
In the summer of 2007, a room deep inside Montana State Prison would be the scene of something extraordinary.
After seven years of investigation, Barry Beach's team from Centurion ministries had gathered all its evidence and witnesses and filed a petition asking Montana’s Board of Pardons and Paroles for a chance to make its case that Barry Beach was an innocent man, wrongly imprisoned. And the response from the board was amazing, unprecedented. The board said yes: it would hear the case for Beach's innocence.
The Centurion team gathered in Montana.
Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: What is your feeling today as you prepare for this hearing? Jim McCloskey, Centurion ministries: For them to initiate this and conduct a factual hearing on innocence and innocence alone, it's never happened in the United States before that I’m aware of.
And the stakes could not have been higher. The Board of Pardons and Paroles had immense power: it could recommend to the governor a full pardon, it could commute the sentence, it could reduce the sentence, or deny the clemency request all together. And Barry Beach would, in that case, most likely spend the rest of his days in prison.
Beach, having waited decades for this day, entered in shackles but felt exhilaration.
Keith Morrison: Aren't you afraid to get your hopes up? You've got this sort of shine in your eyes like you're on to something here. But you know they just might send you back and say “forget about it, Barry.”Beach: They've done that to me in the past, as has every court in the United States of America. But I’ve still got a team behind me that's fighting for me.Keith Morrison: You really think you're going to get out of here?Beach: Yes, sir.
The room at the prison was filled with Beach's supporters.
There was his mother, who'd stood by him now for more than two decades and watched the wild teenager grow into something of a Boy Scout -- by all accounts -- behind bars. He’s been active in prison ministries, Native American groups, a respected man.
Keith Morrison: How do you feel about him and how he's handled all this?Clincher: Barry is my hero.Keith Morrison: Your hero?Clincher: Times when I felt down, Barry is the one who's lifted me up. And how can a person, any person, be locked up for 24, 25, 30 years and be innocent, and not go out of their mind?
Even Pam Johnson felt compelled to attend, 28 years after she lost her only sister. But in all those years, Barry’s confession never seemed fully believable. Not to her.
Keith Morrison: Why is it so important to know?Pam Nees: Because I’m that kind of person. I ask “why” everything. Why, why, why, you know?
And the burden to prove that Kim Nees was indeed killed by someone else was now on the shoulders of Beach's defense team from Centurion.
First, the defense called an expert in false confessions.
Prof. Richard Leo: It's one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction…
Professor Richard Leo examined Barry Beach's confession. He found it lacked specifics that, as police claimed, “only the killer could have known.”
Question: Was there any particular fact when you analyzed the confession, that suggested to you this was unique knowledge that wasn't out in the public realm that Mr. Beach described?Prof. Leo: Not that I can think of, no.
Remember, Beach's defense team alleged that detective Jay Via of Louisiana planted information, then had Beach retrieve it. But the defense claimed that there was far too much detail in the 13-page confession for him only to have spoken to the Montana sheriff twice.
So the defense called this sheriff's dispatcher, who claimed there were a lot more than just two calls.
Question: How many, in terms of the total number of calls that you think came in from Louisiana, came in during this time period?Jansen: I bet you there was at least 10 that were logged.
And then the defense called Detective Via and asked about what it called that “smoking gun,” the idea that something was funny about Beach's confession.
Remember, Centurion found the transcript of a phone call that it claimed suggests Louisiana detective Jay Via believed the victim had been wearing a brown plaid shirt.
And sure enough, in Beach's confession, he described her clothes in nearly the same way: a plaid polyester blouse, a brown sports jacket.
Question: Your inaccuracy ends up in his statement. That's an indication of a false fact contaminating a confession isn't it?Jay Via: Are you asking me is that what happened in this case? Did I know she was wearing one? Or thought she was wearing one? No. sir.
Next, in video conference, the defense called Via's partner taking the confession: retired Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Commander Alfred Calhoun. He's the man Beach accused of threatening him, scaring him into confession by describing how he'd be put to death in Louisiana’s electric chair.
Calhoun: Well, I’ve been accused of a lot of things, but in this case I’m not guilty of threatening that young man.
As for that central piece of physical evidence, the bloody palm print that failed to match Barry Beach: an FBI report, remember, concluded the print was likely left by the “unsub” -- the murderer.
At trial, the prosecutor said the print could have been left by the victim, Kim Nees.
But it turned out that the sheriff who investigated the case for years, had another theory altogether. He thought that after the murder, somebody simply happened by on the scene, got blood on his or her hands, and then rather than reporting the crime simply left, leaving a bloody palm print behind.
Question: Do you have any witnesses to support your theory?Mahlum: No, sir.Question: Do you have any forensic evidence to support your theory?Mahlum: No, sir.
The defense claimed Montana law enforcement doesn't want to know whose palm print it is because it would unravel the case against Barry Beach.
McCloskey: We have a whole list of people who we have good reason to believe were down there in the park, either participating in the murder or observing the murder, who could be possible donors. These people have never been tested.Keith Morrison: They haven't had their palm prints done?McCloskey: No. And we don't have the power to do it.
So Centurion moved to the big Question: if Barry Beach wasn't the killer, was it that group of girls?
Remember, at least two of them claimed they were home in bed by 11 p.m. that night, hours before the murder.
To knock down those alibis, the defense called the owner of the Bum Steer Bar, who said she knows where Sissy and those other girls were that night.
And they were not at home in bed.
Ryan: They'd gather around Sissy and them and they'd leave and I’d get them out of there and they'd want to get back in I had trouble all night with them.Question: All the way until closing time? Ryan: Yes.Question: And that was at 2?Ryan: Two.
Next, Centurion called witnesses tying Sissy and a larger group to the crime.
That rancher who said he saw Kim Nees’ truck cab filled with people about 2:30 a.m.
Question: Could you tell how many occupants were in the pickup?Holen: At least five.
The man who said he got a phone call from Sissy two hours before Kim Nees’ body was discovered…
O’Connor: I don't know if that young man did or did not do it, but I know one thing. I got the phone call.
There were more: the co-worker who claimed Sissy confessed to him…
Four Star: She looked right at me and she said we got away with the perfect crime…
And another witness who said Sissy had confessed to her…
Brown: She proceeded to tell me that she and Maude Grayhawk had something to do with it.
Then, Sissy Atkinson’s brother J.D. took the stand and told the same story he'd told Dateline.
J.D. Atkinson: She mentioned that she thought somebody was chasing Kim around with a wrench or something.
J.D. said he was a witness under duress. That just days before, he claimed to have received a threat from an investigator at the Montana attorney general's office if he testified.
J.D. Atkinson: He asked me if I was aware of the penalty for perjury. And I said well I haven’t said anything I’m lying about.Question: Did it scare you?J.D. Atkinson: I felt threatened.
After trying to tie Sissy Atkinson to the crime through her own words, the defense next moved to do the same with another woman long suspected of involvement: Maude Grayhawk.
Grayhawk's sister-in-law testified that Maude had made a startling admission.
Greyhawk: She said all I did was kick her in the head a few times, and I lured her down there. It just blew my mind, it just really upset me. I couldn't handle it.
And she was coming forward even though it might destroy her 30-year marriage to Maude’s brother.
Greyhawk: He threatened to divorce me. I just said “Well, go ahead and divorce me.” I'm not going to back down from my statement. It's the truth and I’m not going to perjure myself.
Even Maude Grayhawk didn't believe Beach killed Kim Nees. At least, not according to the sheriff's deputy who interviewed her years later.
Kemp: She said she believed that there was someone else involved. She thought that Kim was lured down to the bridge by another female because she couldn't see Kim going down there to that area by herself with Mr. Beach because Kim was a scaredy cat.
Finally, Beach's defense team subpoenaed the two women whose names first surfaced in the days right after the murder and were still being whispered decades later: Sissy Atkinson and Maude Greyhawk.
Maude Greyhawk first agreed to appear, and then didn't show up. But Sissy Atkinson did attend the hearing. She attempted to answer all those lingering questions about her whereabouts that night, and her credibility now.
What did she do the night of the murder? Remember, Sissy told us she'd been dropped off at her house about 11 p.m. Now she was saying something rather different.
Question: You're now saying you walked home?Sissy Atkinson: Yes.Question: Do you recall telling the attorney general “I had them take me home”?Sissy Atkinson: You know, that's been so many years ago. I had a drug problem all these years.Question: Is it possible you didn't go home?Sissy Atkinson: No. I did go home.
And about the call she allegedly made about Kim’s body being found?
Sissy Atkinson: I don't think I did. I think I was sleeping.
And all those admissions she's accused of making about her involvement in the murder? Including the one to her own brother?
Sissy Atkinson: We never, ever ever discussed Kim Nees, Maude, any of them. Ever.
And so Beach's defense team from Centurion ministries rested its case, confident it had raised serious doubts about the trial that convicted Barry Beach all those years ago.
There was that potentially tainted confession, the total lack of physical evidence implicating Beach, and Centurion's alternate theory: that Kim Nees was killed by a group of out-of-control girls jealous of a college bound valedictorian about to leave Poplar behind.
But now it was the state of Montana ‘s turn, and the one-time prosecutor turned two term governor, Marc Racicot, was about to offer testimony of his own.
As prosecutors from the Montana attorney general's office prepared to make their case, the sheriff who'd put Barry Beach in prison was facing the prospect of one of his biggest cases coming unraveled.
Mahlum: If the conviction is expunged, that's a travesty. Because Barry Beach killed Kim Nees.
But while Beach's defense team had the burden of trying to prove Beach was innocent, the state would be content to call several witnesses who would defend the conviction and ask the board to leave the convicted killer in prison.
First, the state tried to cast doubt on the word of Beach's witnesses, like the statement made by a man who said he'd overheard Sissy Atkinson’s admission in a factory where they both worked.
This former worker said no way that could have happened – it’s too noisy in there.
McDonald: I would say he was lying.
Next on the stand, a former sheriff who'd worked for a while with Beach's defense team and then quit, saying that to him, evidence seemed to be lacking.
Grainger: I just can't comprehend somebody that's not part of the crime not coming forward. At some point somebody is going to say something. A conspiracy like that doesn't hold together.
And then the prosecution brought to the stand the man who'd handled Beach's arrest, confession, and conviction to give the board a chance to judge if he could be trusted.
Question: Did he ever deny killing Kim Nees during that interview?Mahlum: Never.
First, Sheriff Dean Mahlum took the stand to counter arguments that he fed enough information to Louisiana detectives to frame Beach.
Remember, an ex-employee testified Mahlum took 10 or more phone calls from Jay Via that day.
Mahlum: I think I had two with Sgt. Via, as I recall, on the 7
Then the state called back Jay Via himself, one of the Louisiana detectives who took Beach's confession back in 1983.
Question: As you sit here today, do you have any doubts about the confession that Barry Beach gave you on January 7?Via: Absolutely none whatsoever.
And the detective, now retired, bristled at accusations by Beach's defense team that he'd somehow planted information that came out in the confession.
Via The bottom line is that the truth in 1983 is that same truth today.
Keith Morrison: At any point along the way in this long investigation were you thinking, maybe, “Well there's something here?”Via: I know that when I spoke with Barry, and what Barry told me in that room was from his heart. And true, as he told it. I didn't give it to him. He gave it to us.
And then, Via’s partner, the man who helped take the confession -- the closer -- retired commander Alfred Calhoun.
Beach accused him of screaming and threatening to put him to death in Louisiana’s electric chair. He returned in video conference and described the moment he says Beach broke down in that interrogation room.
Calhoun: When I informed him I believed he was being deceptive, Mr. Beach threw up his hands up a little bit like this and said “I’m having a vision. I'm seeing her by the right rear tire of the truck.”Question: Did you have any motive to get Barry Beach to confess to the Montana homicide?Calhoun: Only to seek the truth.
Finally, the prosecutor in the case, former Montana governor Marc Racicot, took the witness chair with a passionate defense of his prosecution of Barry Beach.
Racicot: It's not a theory or a premise. It's overwhelmingly, powerfully true.
The former prosecutor dismissed arguments that Beach's confession was somehow off on a number of points. He claimed that even though no murder weapon was ever found, much less connected with Beach, and no DNA linked Beach to the crime scene, and no fingerprints, or footprints, or that bloody palm print were ever found to be his -- he was guilty because his confession itself amounted to incontrovertible physical evidence.
Racicot: You could go all the way from the blows being struck. You had her sitting on the driver's side, all the wounds to head created by a crescent wrench which Mr. Beach described, you have the gouges in the steering wheel. I mean, we could go on and on. Each one of those is a piece of physical evidence found at the scene corroborating Mr. Beach's testimony.Question: Is there any question that you have with all the information available to you, that Mr. Beach is guilty as the jury found him?Racicot: You know, Mr. Curtis, it is a grave and very serious responsibility the prosecutor performs. Every moment in time I performed to the highest standard and within ethical guidelines. There is not one moment of doubt ever in my mind, since I have looked at this confession and been a part of this case that in fact, Barry Beach is guilty as charged.
Keith Morrison: Barry, of course, has protested for years that he confession was coerced and that he didn't kill that girl…Racicot: Well, he's posited several theories. He on one occasion said the confession was inaccurate. Another occasion he said it was coerced. Another occasion he said it was drugged. And then he said he couldn't remember giving the confession. So you could pick any one of a number of theories that Barry has had about his confession.Keith Morrison: There's a basket of witness statements coming from Poplar all these years later. The fellow who said he saw four or five people in the pickup truck with Kim Nees leaving the gas station, heading out…Racicot: And there were no fingerprints for any of those people in the truck!
Keith Morrison: The fact that not one, two not three but about four different people have heard Sissy Atkinson over the years say I did this thing.
Racicot: And not a scintilla of proof to support that.
And now it was time for the man at the center of the case, Barry Beach, to face the board and make his case for freedom.
There are moments in life that call for everything a person's got to give. Once, in such a moment, Barry Beach had confessed to murder. But here? Here was the chance to undo it. To persuade Montana’s board of pardons and paroles that he is innocent. Here was the climax of the so-called “innocence phase” of the hearing.
Barry Beach: I want to thank the parole board members for allowing me to come here, and let me say, I did not kill Kim Nees.
Prosecutors trying to keep Beach behind bars would get the first crack, hammering Beach for changing his story over the years and for suggesting that Louisiana detectives coerced him, drugged him, or somehow made him unable to recall his own confession back on Jan. 7, 1983.
Question: It seems to me from listening to your testimony that you can remember everything that benefited you on January 7 but anything that hurts you, your memory has gone hazy or you can't remember?Beach: I don't know that anything on January 7 benefitted me. But my memory did begin to fade later on in the evening.Question: So you can't remember giving your confession?Beach: Correct.Question: You can't remember the officers recording your confession?Beach: No, I do not.Question: Even though you're not denying that you actually gave the confession?Beach: I would never deny that took place. Look at what it's caused.Marc Racicot, former prosecutor and governor: You can't claim that you were coerced and not remember giving the confession at the same time. So Barry Beach's credibility is more than a little suspect here.
But Beach's defense team, when it came their turn, gently led Beach through the confession process.
Beach: At some point in time I broke weak. And I made the biggest mistake of my life by breaking weak.Question: And when you say broke weak what are you talking about?Beach : They broke me. I mean, I just wanted out of there and I didn't care what it took to get out of there. I didn't want to go through what Alfred Calhoun told me, Alfred Calhoun told me he would watch me fry in the electric chair and I didn't want to go through that. Question: Were you down in the park on the early morning hours of June 16, 1979, when Kim was killed?Beach: No, I was not. I had no involvement with Kim Nees’ murder whatsoever.
But Beach, it turned out, was not the final witness. There was a surprise.
Remember: during his original trial, Beach said he was at home, asleep, when the murder occurred, but didn't have anybody to vouch for his alibi -- until now, 28 years later.
Question: Is this the first time you've been allowed to give public testimony about what you saw on June 15, 1979?Salinda: Yes it is.
Her name is Barbara Salinda. She’s a 47-year-old former youth counselor and mother from California.
And she also Barry Beach's sister.
With Beach looking on in tears, his sister told the board that despite her late appearance, she's told the same story from day one: Barry was right where he said he was the night of the murder, at home, asleep.
Salinda: So when I went upstairs I was able to see by the light, and when I turned the light on. I was able to see that Barry was in his bed asleep.Question: Was the door open?Salinda: Yes, we slept with our doors open.Question: About what time was that?Salinda: I would say it was about 12:40.
Why wait so long to tell her story? Well, she claimed she didn't. Back then, she said, she told the sheriff and she told Barry’s original defense attorney what she'd seen, but she wasn't allowed to testify at trial because she was Barry’s sister. Nobody would believe her. Would they now?
Camiel: Any time a family member comes forward and provides an alibi, there's bound to be skepticism. But Barry’s sister presented herself to the board. Exposed herself to cross examination. Her demeanor was examined. She gave a very complete, very credible story.
Not surprisingly, the former prosecutor saw it quite differently.
Racicot: His attempt to have his sister testify at the clemency hearing, providing an alibi that she'd never mentioned for 25 years, I think evinces the character and quality of the case that was presented by Centurion. I don't question their motives. I don't question their hearts. But I do question their competency and the character of their investigation.
The innocence phase of the hearing was over. But Barry Beach didn't have to be innocent to be released from prison. And the board was about to hear a groundswell of support for setting him free.
The board opened a second hearing to listen to people, ordinary people who wanted to talk about Barry Beach and to make personal pleas for his release.
Guard: He said you need to concentrate on my voice I’m going to get you out of this block.
There was the female prison guard, who told of nearly passing out while on a cellblock once. She came to thank Beach, who, she said, protected her from what could have been unspeakable harm.
Guard: But I owe that to him, and that's a debt that I could never pay no matter what I do.
And then came a virtual who's who of Montanans: a former state senator, who said Beach helped quell tensions during a near-riot; the chief actuary for Montana’s state fund, who met Beach in prison ministry…
Gengler: I would have no problem with him staying overnight in my home.
Childhood friends, also ready to take responsibility for Beach's life after prison…
Simons: If he needed a place to stay, he could always come stay with me.Williams: I would be honored to have him come visit us and stay with us when he gets out.
Witness after witness came forward, even the former mayor of the town of Poplar showed up with a plea.
O’Connor: I'm just here to ask you to find it in your hearts to recommend parole for Barry, as I do believe it is the town's feeling that it's time.
And finally, there was a surprise witness: Pam Johnson, the victim's sister.
Barry Beach's one-time girlfriend, she’d always harbored doubts about the conviction. Still after all these years, she was unable to believe it.
Ash: She's not emotionally capable of speaking right now so I’d just like to read what she wrote last night. “Barry and I were close friends years ago and I honestly believe that Barry did not kill my sister … finding the truth will set Barry free as he should be.” And that's from her heart.
Minutes later, the unprecedented hearing was history.
Barry Beach was cuffed and shackled, temporarily at least, for his return to the Montana State Prison.
Would it be for the last time?
Beach: I'll never give up until I walk out. The truth is there. And the truth is that I did not kill Kim Nees.
For Beach's mother, dreams of her son's release were consuming her.
Clincher: It will take awhile for both of us to catch our breath, I’m sure.Keith Morrison: But you imagine the moment?Clincher: It's impossible not to. Twenty-four years is a long time to wait for that.
But for the sheriff who put Beach behind bars, any decision by Montana’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to offer Beach clemency or commute his life-without-parole sentence would be devastating.
Keith Morrison: If they vacate the judgment, it says that your belief in the veracity of that confession was false.Mahlum: No. What it says is that someone else killed Kimberly Nees. And no one else killed Kimberly Nees.Keith Morrison: Your confidence is overwhelming.Mahlum: Good.
And then there was silence.
A week went by.
Then two weeks came.
And finally, after three weeks of deliberation in private, the Board of Pardons and Paroles issued an e-mail. It had reached a decision, and it was unanimous.
In the matter of Barry Beach, the answer was no.
No clemency, no pardon, no commutation of sentence. No parole. No appeal.
Barry Beach stays in prison. For life. Period.
McCloskey: My initial reaction was one of utter disbelief.
For Centurion ministries, it was, quite simply, stunning.
Keith Morrison: They didn't buy a single one of your arguments.Jim McCloskey: Not one. We brought forward, in both hearings, 34 witnesses. And we were zero for 34 in the board's eyes.
Centurion believed it had proved Beach's confession was clearly false.
But the board called it "as compelling as fingerprints" and "consistently in keeping with the actual physical evidence."
Centurion had pointed out that none of the physical evidence, like footprints, or the palm print, connected Beach to the crime.
But the board wrote that there was "no reason to believe the footprints are in any way connected to this murder' and said the telltale bloody palm print, had "little probative value."
Centurion presented witnesses who offered evidence Kim Nees was killed by a group of girls.
But the board called their testimony "amorphous statements" and said the victim's wounds were "more typically reflective of a single assailant" than any group.
And in a final sentence, the board wrote that “a day ultimately comes when matters are deemed settled; from our perspective, if never before, at last today is that day."
Racicot: This case did not have any kind of persuasive force to it.
The parole board declined Dateline's requests for interviews. But for former prosecutor Marc Racicot, the decision confirmed what he had always believed to be a righteous conviction.
Racicot: I don't think they performed the kind of searing scrutiny that they should have before they moved forward with the case.Keith Morrison: So now the questions have all been laid to rest?Racicot: Well I think all the reasonable questions that people can answer, everything that could be done, has been done in order to answer every question that people have.
Well, not quite.
Centurion ministries founder Jim McCloskey and attorney Peter Camiel, who'd worked for nearly a decade on the Beach case, said it seemed to them that Montana’s Board of Pardons and Paroles simply ignored or twisted the evidence pointing to Beach's innocence.
Jim McCloskey: Their opinion exhibited a real distortion of the facts of the case. In the end, we really have to question their sincerity.Keith Morrison: That's a pretty serious charge. Pretense. Question their sincerity?Jim McCloskey: Absolutely. But that's what we think we have very good reason to believe.Keith Morrison: What happens to Barry Beach? Does he die in prison?Peter Camiel: Not if we can help it.Jim McCloskey: We will do all in our power to continue the struggle to free him.
In fact, Beach's defense team filed papers in court asking for a hearing on what it calls “newly discovered evidence,” those witnesses claiming to have heard the girls confess, and asking for new tests on that bloody palm print.
But four days ago, a judge refused to grant that hearing. An appeal to Montana’s Supreme Court is next.
But, despite the lack of physical evidence linking Beach to the crime, despite the evidence dug up by Centurion for his innocence, Barry Beach --who after all did confess to the murder -- remains in prison, likely forever.
And in Poplar, that little Montana town that is still reeling, in some ways, from a death nearly 29 years ago, the whispers about "real killers" persist.
Keith Morrison: What is it going to take to stop the whispers?Sissy Atkinson: I don't know. I don't care. Because I’m not involved. If Barry didn't kill Kim, then I don't know who killed Kim. But Barry put Barry where he's at. He confessed.