By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Montana's governor on Friday said he will give careful consideration to a clemency request from a man convicted of murder in the 1979 bludgeoning death of a teenage girl in a case that has spurred debate about severe penalties for teen offenders.
Barry Beach was convicted in 1984 by a Montana jury of deliberate homicide after confessing to authorities that he beat to death Kimberly Nees, a 17-year-old classmate at Poplar High School in northeastern Montana, with a wrench and tire iron after she refused him sex, court document show.
Beach, who was 17 at the time of Nees’ death, was sentenced to 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
The state Board of Pardons and Parole has twice turned down Beach’s clemency requests but the governor has the right to grant clemency regardless of the board's actions.
"I will give the merits of his requests careful consideration and render a decision that serves the best interests of the state," Governor Steve Bullock said in a written statement.
There is no timeline for Bullock's decision.
In the decades since his conviction and sentencing, Beach has several times argued in legal documents that he was innocent and that his confession was coerced by police.
In 2011, he was briefly released from prison after a state court granted him a new trial based on what Beach’s attorneys said was new evidence suggesting a group of teenage girls attacked and killed Nees, legal documents show.
On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court in 2013 found the lower court had erred in granting a new trial because Beach had not proved his initial trial was constitutionally flawed and because the new evidence was tied to witnesses whose “stories had changed over time,” state justices found.
The case has drawn the attention of legal advocates who believe sentencing for offenders under age 18 should take into account their age and the possibility of reform.
That was the substance of a request by Beach for a new sentencing hearing, which was rejected by Montana’s top court earlier this year.
By a narrow 4-3 majority, Montana justices found that Beach could not seek to retroactively apply a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found that an Alabama law mandating life without parole for a juvenile convicted of murder violated a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott)