By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Montana's governor granted clemency on Friday to a man convicted of murder as a teenager in the 1979 bludgeoning death of a female classmate in a case that ignited debate about severe punishment of teen offenders.
Barry Beach, who was 17 at the time of the killing, was sentenced to 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole after admitting to investigators that he used a wrench and tire iron to beat to death Kimberly Nees, a 17-year-old pupil at Poplar High School, after she refused him sex.
Using an executive order, Governor Steve Bullock commuted that to time served and 10 years' probation under the supervision of the state Department of Corrections.
Beach's sentence had drawn the attention of legal advocates, including Bullock, who argued that sentencing for youth offenders should take into account their age and the possibility of reform.
Those advocates won a victory in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court found that an Alabama law mandating life without parole for a juvenile convicted of murder violated a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Bullock, a Democrat who was Montana's attorney general before being elected governor, wrote in his order granting clemency for Beach that a sentence of life without parole "forecloses the possibility of rehabilitation."
Bullock said Beach, who is now 53, had behaved well during the three decades he has spent behind bars, and that three psychological reports had concluded that he poses "minimal risk to public safety and is likely to successfully transition back into society."
Since his conviction by a Montana jury in 1984, Beach has argued in legal filings that he is 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 that Nees was killed by a group of girls.
But the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the lower court erred in granting a new trial because Beach did not prove his first trial was constitutionally flawed, and because the new evidence was tied to witnesses whose stories had changed.
The state Board of Pardons and Parole twice turned down clemency requests from Beach, but Bullock had the right to grant clemency regardless of the board's actions.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)