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Governor weighs in on Beach's clemency application, asks whether 30 years in prison is enough

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HELENA, Montana — Gov. Steve Bullock asked the state parole board Wednesday to consider whether Barry Beach has served enough time in prison as the board prepares to review Beach's clemency application in the 1979 beating death of a Poplar classmate.

Bullock sent the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole a letter before Tuesday's scheduled review on whether the circumstances had changed enough in Beach's case to merit a clemency hearing.

In his letter, Bullock cited factors he said deserve the board's consideration of commuting the 100-year sentence. They include Beach being a juvenile at the time of the slaying, his being imprisoned for more than 30 years, his good behavior in prison and when he was freed for 18 months starting in 2011 while awaiting a new trial.

Beach and Kimberly Nees were high-school classmates on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that juvenile offenders can't be sentenced to life in prison without parole, and that they have the ability to change, Bullock wrote.

"Under this reasoning, Mr. Beach should have an opportunity for rehabilitation outside of prison," Bullock wrote. "The reasons for maintaining Mr. Beach's 100-years-without-parole sentence at taxpayer expense diminish with each passing year."

But Bullock stopped short of expressly advocating for a clemency recommendation. "If the hearing panel decides to forward a recommendation of clemency, I will carefully consider that recommendation," he wrote.

Beach has long argued that the 1983 confession used to convict him was coerced by police officers in Louisiana. His cause has been taken up by hundreds of supporters, among them Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.

Bullock has previously said it would be inappropriate for him to offer an opinion on Beach's request before the process plays out.

The governor's letter was unusual in other respects. Board Executive Director Fern Johnson said she cannot recall any other time a sitting governor has weighed in on a parole board case before it reached his desk.

Also, Bullock helped put Beach back in prison after a Lewistown judge ruled in 2011 there was enough new evidence in the case to justify a new trial and ordered him released. Witnesses told the judge that Nees might have been beaten to death in an out-of-control fight among a gang of girls.

Bullock, who was attorney general at the time, appealed that decision to the Montana Supreme Court. The high court reversed the lower judge, and Beach went back to jail to finish his term.

The board is meeting Tuesday to review Beach's clemency application and decide whether there has been a substantial change in Beach's circumstances to accept it. If they do, they will order an investigation to determine whether to hold a clemency hearing.

The board would then decide whether to recommend clemency to Bullock, who has the final say.

Johnson said she forwarded Bullock's letter to the board members. "I know they will read it and consider it," she said.

The parole board in 2007 denied Beach a recommendation for a gubernatorial pardon.

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