DEER LODGE, Mont. (AP) — A Montana man who spent three decades behind bars for a murder he says he did not commit walked out of prison Friday after the governor granted his clemency request.
Barry Beach, 53, told reporters gathered outside that the moment was "surreal."
"There's going to a lot of healing and tears between here and Billings," Beach said, referring to the four-hour drive to his home. He thanked Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who was not present, for "keeping his word."
Beach had been serving a 100-year sentence with no possibility of parole for the 1979 beating death of Kimberly Nees, 17, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in the northeast corner of the state.
Bullock noted in his order that Beach was only 17 at the time and exhibited good behavior in prison.
The murder of Nees, an honor student, gripped the small town of Poplar after her body was found alongside a river at a popular place for teenagers to party. No arrests were made, and small-town gossip built until Beach confessed to out-of-state police who picked him up on an unrelated crime.
But Beach said his 1983 confession to Louisiana authorities was coerced. His long campaign for freedom drew support from hundreds, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
Bullock last year asked the state parole board to consider whether Beach served enough time at the Montana State Prison. State officials rejected Beach's request for clemency on four prior occasions. Last month, after receiving a fifth request, the parole board forwarded the matter to Bullock.
A new law — inspired in large part by Beach's case — gives Montana's governor the final decision in clemency requests instead of the parole board.
Under the clemency order, Bullock commuted Beach's sentence to time served with 10 years suspended. Beach will remain on probation for 10 years, supervised by the state Department of Corrections.
Three psychological reports of Beach concluded he poses "minimal risk to public safety and is likely to successfully transition back into society," Bullock wrote in his order.
"Mr. Beach has demonstrated an extended period of good behavior both in and out of prison, and the reasons for maintaining his 100-year-without-parole sentence at taxpayer expense diminish with each passing year."
Beach was released for 18 months beginning in 2011 after a state judge ordered a new trial based on witness testimony that Nees died in a fight among a gang of girls.
But the state Supreme Court blocked that trial, sending Beach back to prison.
During his time on the outside, Beach worked at the Clocktower Inn in Billings, Montana's largest city.
His mother, Bobbi Clinch, said Friday the hotel's owner told her the job was still available for Beach, and she expects he will resume working there soon.
"He probably would like to take a little bit of time off, but there's the reality that he has to support himself," Clinch said.