HELENA, Mont. — When Barry Beach was convicted of murder in 1984 for the killing of a female schoolmate, Miami Vice was a hit TV show. A car phone was a rich man's boxy appliance. Beach's mullet hairdo was in vogue.
Nearly 28 years later, Beach has returned to freedom and a new world. Not only is everything more expensive, technologically advanced and a whole lot faster, he has returned to his adopted hometown of Billings a cause celebre to many people who believe he is innocent.
Beach's status has seemingly grown each year as his case received more attention amid doubts about his guilt. He has the backing of a long list of influential supporters in Montana along with a New Jersey-based innocence group that helped publicize his case. Pro-Barry Beach placards began appearing in local businesses and national news reports prompted even more people to come forward with new information potentially incriminating others in the crime.
It all helped Beach walk free last week as a judge released him while he awaits a new trial in the 1979 murder of a teenager who was savagely beaten.
Prosecutors are contesting Beach's release and are adamant that the right man was convicted in the murder of 17-year-old Kim Nees, pointing to his confession as the ultimate proof. Beach says it was a coerced and false confession. Prosecutors are also flabbergasted by the positive reception for Beach and find it insensitive to the family of the victim.
Beach says he has been bolstered by the support he has found in Billings, with strangers coming up to hug him in the street as the 49-year-old builds a new life in this strange, new world.
He has a job making Christmas cookies at the bakery owned by the wife of the supporter he's living with. He's fixing up the Ford pickup that he inherited. He plans to help out a local jail ministry over the holidays, even though he knows his own reprieve from behind bars may be temporary.
"I'm just trying to get my wheels," said Barry Beach after replacing his truck's bald tires at a Laurel store. "It's part of the life out here is you've got to be mobile you know. I'm just trying to get caught up so I can start living life, start enjoying life."
Last week, the judge released Beach without bail since, in part, he will be living with a former county commissioner and well-known Billings business owner. An enthusiastic Beach said he has enjoyed each moment ever since — even the mundane chore of buying auto insurance.
"I spent all my years in prison setting up and preparing for this moment," he added. "I truly feel like I am living the life I fought so hard to have."
Prosecutors aren't ceding the case.
The state attorney general's office will be asking the Montana Supreme Court to reverse District Judge E. Wayne Phillips's order for a new trial, hoping to restore Beach's original sentence and send him back to prison. Both sides say it could take the court up to a year to sort through the case.
"I think the other important thing to keep in mind is that we have a victim here and family members of a victim," said Assistant Attorney General Tammy Plubell. "It gets increasingly difficult to explain all this to them."
The mother of the victim has long believed Beach was rightfully convicted. Diane Nees declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.
Former Yellowstone County Commissioner James "Ziggy" Ziegler, in whose home Beach is now staying, said the attorney general's office would be wrong to pursue a retrial.
"I just think with the groundswell of all the support, my opinion is that the attorney general's office better give it a hard look if they want to take it to another trial," said Ziegler. "I think the court of public opinion is such that they just need to let it go away."
Cameras rolled and reporters blogged and tweeted Beach's every move the day of his release. They were there when he changed into a Washington Redskins jersey, gave his mother a prolonged hug and munched on olives at a party at Lewistown's Yogo Inn. His life outside jail has continued to be front-page news as Beach went about his first days of freedom, with the scrutiny even documenting Beach's renewed relationship with his favorite meal — a McDonald's cheeseburger and strawberry shake.
The meal was the same one Louisiana detectives fed him during the long-ago interrogation that led to a confession that landed Beach in prison for Nees' killing.
Prosecutors argue Beach's detailed confession matches the crime scene, and that his new evidence relies on hearsay testimony built on years of rumors that a gang of girls were really responsible for the deadly attack on Nees at a popular riverside party spot for Poplar teenagers.
The state recently detailed its argument against Beach, building on the transcribed confession that would certainly be a big part of any new trial. The state argues that Beach was known to have a temper, and let it get out of control that night after Nees rebuffed his advances.
"At this point, Beach grabbed Kim by her arm and pulled her over next to him. Kim slapped him and Beach 'flew off the handle again,'" the state's recent court filing reads, quoting the confession. "Beach said he picked a 12-inch chrome crescent wrench off the floorboard and started hitting Kim with it inside the cab of the truck."
Beach's attorneys, however, convinced the judge to grant the new trial and release Beach in the meantime. They brought several witnesses to a hearing last summer who testified that a group of women have over the years let slip their involvement in the crime, or who saw events that summer evening that would indicate a gang of girls with relatives on the local police force committed the crime.
As for Beach, he believed all along that he would eventually be vindicated and he now intends to take full advantage of the opportunity.
"I am not going to waste the opportunity God has put in my life," Beach said. "I am going to do everything in my power to enjoy it."
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings contributed to this report.