BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — After less than two years of freedom, a Montana man was returned to custody Wednesday following a state Supreme Court ruling that could send him back to prison for the rest of his life over the 1979 slaying of a teenage classmate.
Barry Beach surrendered to the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday morning without incident, said state attorney general spokesman John Barnes.
"It was hard enough to be innocent to begin with," Beach told The Associated Press less than two hours before his surrender. "But to be going back, still innocent, for the second time, is just unbelievable."
His attorney promised to fight for his release.
Beach has been a cause celebre among influential state and national advocates who say his murder confession in the 1980s was coerced. Years of rallies and calls for his release culminated in a 2011 judge's order freeing him and ordering a new trial with testimony from witnesses who said 17-year-old Kim Nees was killed in an out-of-control fight among girls.
Beach had started a new life in Billings, with a house and a job, after spending nearly three decades in prison for the killing.
Prosecutors, the victim's immediate family, and others remained adamant over the years that Beach was guilty, and that he killed Nees after she resisted his advances late one summer on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation near Poplar.
Attorney General Tim Fox lauded the work of attorneys who have worked the case for years to make sure Beach finishes his sentence.
"It was their job to defend a lawful conviction that is many years old, and they did it appropriately," Fox said. "Their diligent efforts honor the memory of Kimberly Nees and hopefully bring about some sense of closure for her mother, Diane Nees."
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Diane Nees declined comment. "I haven't talked during this whole episode so I will not start now," she said.
The Lewistown judge's 2011 ruling said new evidence warranted Beach's release and a new trial. But state prosecutors appealed the release, and no date was set for a retrial.
Tuesday's 4-3 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court upheld the original 1984 conviction. Justices said Beach provided details only the killer would know in a 1983 confession given to Louisiana police who had picked him up on an unrelated crime.
Glena Nees Lockman, who identified herself as a cousin of the victim, said she was "sick to her stomach" that Beach was back in custody years after she became convinced of his innocence after hearing from witnesses in Poplar.
"I had high hopes the state would finally go after those responsible for killing Kim," Lockman said.
Beach had spent part of his last hours of freedom eating breakfast at a diner with the mayor of Billings and other friends. Wearing a T-shirt that said "I didn't do it," he maintained his innocence and told The Associated Press it was "a sad demonstration of our system" that he could be returned to prison without a new trial after the Lewistown judge freed him.
At that point, Beach said he had not had a chance to read the 89-page ruling that restored his original murder sentence of 100 years in prison with no possibility of parole.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said Tuesday's ruling denied Beach the chance he deserved to prove his innocence. Hanel said he befriended Beach when Beach was working at Stella's, a Billings restaurant run by James "Ziggy" Ziegler, who Beach lived with upon his release until he found a place of his own last year.
"It's a question of whether justice has really been served and if a fair opportunity has been provided," Hanel said.
Ziegler said he and his wife, Stella, walked with Beach to the sheriff's office when he surrendered. He described it as an emotional parting, and said he was told Beach would be transported to the state prison in Deer Lodge sometime Wednesday afternoon.
Beach's attorney, Peter Camiel, promised that advocates would keep pushing for Beach's release. He said the case would not stop at the Montana Supreme Court, and could potentially go to federal courts or even the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We hope in the future we will be back in front of a judge asking to let him out," Camiel said.
Gouras contributed to this report from Helena, Mont.