This op-ed article originally was published in the Helena, MT Independence Record on March 23, 2008.
The story of Barry Beach’s innocence
By DANIEL J. GENGLER - Your Turn - 03/23/08
I am fortunate to live in a nation that aspires to the rule of law and justice for all.
And we are fortunate that the system works as well as it does. It’s not perfect but 99 percent of the time the system works reasonably well. The story of Barry Beach’s innocence is about the other 1 percent of the time.
I first found about this case in 2006 when a good friend asked me to take a look at a set of files. He told me it was about an innocent Montana man in prison. Because I respect this friend, I agreed to read them, though I was skeptical. As I promised, I read the files, but I was looking for the flaws in the case for Beach’s innocence. Somewhere near the end of reading these files, I reached a turning point. To the extent that what I was reading was authoritatively verified, I saw good reason to question the validity of this man’s conviction. But my skepticism was still not completely satisfied. I still wanted to know what the other side had to say. What was I not being told?
So I attended the hearings before the Board of Pardons and Parole this past summer and read the state’s documents to get the rest of the story. But after reading several voluminous documents and sitting through three grueling days of testimony, I heard nothing from the state that made any sense which undermined the case for Barry Beach’s innocence. I almost wished I hadn’t taken the time and effort to expose myself to the truth because, at that point, I could no longer take refuge in a lack of awareness. Like the Samaritan man on the road who happens upon a stranger in need of help, I saw such a stranger in need. And though it would be far more convenient to walk on by assuring myself that the matter was not my concern, my faith compels me to stop and help.
I am not alone. Montanans for Justice is a group of Montanans from throughout the state who are concerned about this travesty in our justice system. We are deeply disturbed by the fact that we have an innocent man in prison serving an extremely harsh sentence of 100 years without parole for a crime he did not commit. We are current and former elected officials, professionals, businessmen and women — folks from all walks of life who, through various circumstances, have come to know about this case. After thorough and careful review, all of us have come to firmly believe Barry Beach is not guilty of this murder, leading to the inescapable conclusion that those responsible for the murder of Kim Nees have not been held accountable. Not only has Barry Beach been denied justice for his wrongful conviction, the Nees family and the community of Poplar have been denied the true justice they deserve. Barry Beach is being represented legally by Centurion Ministries, an organization based in Princeton, N.J., dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted. Centurion Ministries spent seven years and very substantial resources investigating this case before ever agreeing to represent Mr. Beach. Montanans For Justice is a grassroots effort composed of Montanans. We have no stake in this matter other than a desire for the truth to prevail.
Barry Beach’s wrongful conviction is really only symptomatic of a much larger issue at hand. As one writer wrote on the www.MontanansForJustice.com blog: “I was born in 1979, and I’ve heard all the rumors on the rez because I was born and raised on Fort Peck. I’ve heard all my relatives talk about it, my great-grandmother told me Kim Nees’ spirit still walks because she went too young. My relatives all lived on the hill and my mother was sitting outside that night, she heard alot of them partying down there, which makes me question Barry’s confession in which he said he was alone with Kim down there, and if so, then how come my mother heard more than a couple people down there? Also, I’ve heard all the rumors about Sissy and Maude, but I don’t think justice will come too soon for Barry because people on the rez are too scared to come forward. Look at the Follete murders, or Lawrence Crowe, and Richard Red Dog, I could go on, but of course, the right people are never convicted. I pray that they will be caught though, Poplar is a scary place to live for our children nowadays. How do you raise children in a town where murderers reside?”
How do you raise children in a place where there is little faith in law enforcement and our criminal justice system? Exonerating Barry Beach would be a shining beacon of hope in a community desperate for faith in the rule of law and justice.
There are, quite understandably, powerful forces that would prefer to quietly sweep this whole affair under the rug. But what’s politically convenient is not necessarily what’s right. The system works reasonably well 99 percent of the time. The system works even better when it faces up to the mistakes made the other 1 percent of the time and makes it right.
Daniel J. Gengler lives in Helena, Montana.