HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A bill signed by Montana's governor could pave the way to clemency for Barry Beach, who is serving a 100-year prison sentence for a 1979 murder he says he didn't commit.
Gov. Steve Bullock signed the measure Friday after it passed the Legislature with wide bipartisan support. The bill allows the governor to grant clemency to prisoners even if the state parole board recommends against it.
The governor also will be able to waive fines, lessen a sentence or pardon someone after the law takes effect Oct. 1.
Bullock declined to comment specifically on Beach's case Monday, but he previously voiced support for commuting Beach's life sentence and giving him a chance for rehabilitation outside prison.
Beach has fought for years for his release, saying the confession used to convict him in Kimberly Nees' beating death near Poplar was coerced. The New Jersey-based prisoner advocacy group Centurion Ministries has worked to free him, and hundreds of supporters have taken up his cause.
Attorneys for the state say Beach has been given unprecedented opportunity to argue his innocence and deserves no more. They say Nees' mother has suffered in silence for decades as Beach's appeals have continued, and it's time for the case to be settled.
Beach's attorney Peter Camiel said Monday he plans to apply for a clemency hearing at the earliest opportunity.
"He's really encouraged because the bill that made it through passed through with amazing support," Camiel said of Beach's state of mind. "He has two chances now."
Beach's other chance rests with the Montana Supreme Court, which heard arguments in February that Beach should be resentenced under rulings from the nation's top court that found juveniles can't be held to the same standards of moral culpability as adults. The crime occurred when Beach was 17.
The state Supreme Court has not yet ruled on that matter, and Camiel said there has been no indication of when it will.
In 2011, a state judge granted Beach a new trial based on testimony that a group of girls might have been involved in the killing. The judge ordered Beach released from prison, but the Montana Supreme Court overturned that ruling 18 months later.
The measure giving the governor clemency powers came out of an interim committee formed after inmates complained that parole board decisions appeared inconsistent or too strict. The board also drew increased scrutiny after Bullock supported commuting Beach's life sentence, but a three-member panel of the board declined to forward a clemency recommendation to him.
Board chairman Mike McKee resigned in December, saying much of the opposition to his reappointment came from Beach supporters. Bullock has not yet named a replacement.
Bullock said in a statement the primary responsibility for considering and acting upon clemency applications remains with the Board of Pardons and Parole.
"I respect the hard work of the citizens who give selflessly of their time to serve on that very important board," the governor said. "The law grants new responsibilities to my office to make final decisions on clemency applications. I take those responsibilities very seriously and will exercise them judiciously."