Montana Supreme Court rejects Barry Beach's request for new prison sentence

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HELENA, Montana — The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a re-sentencing request from a man convicted of killing his high-school classmate in 1979 when they both were teenagers.

Barry Beach had argued that his 100-year prison sentence should be ruled unconstitutional after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision barred mandatory life sentences for juveniles and ordered judges to consider the youth of an offender before imposing a life sentence. That ruling reflected recent scientific findings that young criminals have the capacity to change.

Beach was convicted of deliberate homicide in 1984 in the beating death of Kimberly Nees. Both Beach and Nees were 17-year-old high school students in Poplar when she was killed.

Beach has previously denied killing Nees, saying his confession was coerced. His cause has been taken up by hundreds of supporters, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.

Beach argued in his latest petition that the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision makes his prison term unconstitutional because his trial judge did not consider Beach's youth when handing down the sentence.

The Montana high court ruled 4-3 that the federal ruling does not apply to people who were convicted before the 2012 decision. U.S. Supreme Court decisions are retroactive only if they create a substantive or watershed rule, which the 2012 decision did not do, Justice Beth Baker wrote in the majority opinion.

"Montana has always permitted a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender's youth when sentencing that offender to a term of years with no possibility of parole," Baker wrote in the majority opinion. The 2012 court ruling "merely goes a step further by requiring that consideration," she added.

Justices Patricia Cotter, Mike Wheat and Jim Shea dissented, saying Beach's case should be sent back to district court for a new sentencing hearing.

Beach attorney Pete Camiel says he is disappointed in Tuesday's ruling. Beach plans to file a new appeal when a new law expanding the governor's clemency powers takes effect on Oct. 1, Camiel said.

The new law gives the governor final say on clemency decisions, even if the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole denies a clemency application. The bill was driven in part by the board's denial of Beach's clemency last year, Beach's fourth application.

Gov. Steve Bullock had told the board that he wanted to consider Beach's application, and that Beach should have an opportunity for rehabilitation outside of prison.

The Montana Department of Justice, which prosecuted Beach, did not have a comment on Tuesday's decision, agency spokesman John Barnes said.

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