Tuesday, April 1, 2008
The case of Barry Beach has been a long strange trip which could probably be fodder for several months worth of posts on this site. Today, I will only focus on one. In 1984, Beach was convicted of the 1979 murder of seventeen year-old high school valedictorian Kim Nees on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. Here is a brief recounting of the details of the case. Around 7:00 A.M. on June 16, 1979, two tribal police officers went to investigate a truck parked on a bluff overlooking the Poplar River Bridge. They saw blood inside the locked vehicle and a clump of bloody hair on the ground. Following a drag trail, they discovered Nees partly submerged, face up in the river.
The murder went unsolved for several years, until the then twenty year-old Beach, who was living with his father in Louisiana, was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor in January 1983. After being held in jail for three days, two officers questioned Beach for hours, trying to link him to the abductions and deaths of three young local women. Eventually, Beach confessed to these Louisiana deaths and the murder of Nees four years earlier. According to the reported confession, which can be found here, Kimberly Nees was the sister of Beach's girlfriend. One day in the victim's truck, Beach made sexual advances on Kim and got angry and strangled her when she resisted his advances. Nees then escaped out the driver's door and Beach came around the truck and hit her with a crescent wrench. He then dragged her body and pushed it over an embankment. Finally, he returned to the truck several times to cover his tracks, throwing evidence into a river
Beach's confession to the Louisiana murders didn't stick and other suspects were eventually arrested for them (Beach apparently wasn't even in Louisiana at the time of the murders). About one year later, however, Beach was convicted of Nees' murder and sentenced to 100 years imprisonment without the possibility of parole in large part based upon his confession. Beach subsequently lodged several appeals, but none were successful. Beach's cause was then taken up by others. One such group is Montanans For Justice, a group of Montanans concerned about the Beach case, which has a website detailing the problems it has with the evidence in the case. According to the group, inter alia, Beach's confession was coerced and inconsistent with the crime scene evidence, the evidence was mishandled, and a bloody palm print found on the victim's truck doesn't match Beach or Nees. Apparently, the New Jersey based innocence group Centurion Ministries also took up Beach's cause, filing a petition seeking a new trial for Beach, which can be found here. The petition was based in large part on alleged statements made by a group of young girls and others which implicate the girls in the murder and exonerate Beach. The State, however, opposed the motion, and a district judge in Wolf Point denied the request yesterday. Beach's attorney has vowed to appeal the Supreme Court of Montana and then possibly go to federal court.
At first blush, I'm not quite sure what to think of the case although it seems like there is a strong possibility that Beach is wrongfully in jail, much like in the Tim Masters case. I think that I will have a better sense of things after a Dateline special on the case airs on Friday. As I noted, though, I only want to focus on one issue in the case, and that is the issue of how courts should determine the admissibility of statements against interest that incriminate the speaker and exonerate the defendant. As noted, the petition for a new trial was based, inter alia, in large part on alleged statements made by a group of young girls, including Maude Grayhawk, which implicate the girls in the murder and exonerate Beach. According to the petition, Grayhawk made repeated these statements to several people on various occasions.
The question is whether these statements are admissible under Montana Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3), which indicates that when the declarant is "unavailable" to testify at trial, "[a] statement which was at the time of its making so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject the declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim by the declarant against another or to make the declarant an object of hatred, ridicule, or disgrace, that a reasonable person in the declarant's position would not have made the statement unless the declarant believed it to be true" is admissible as an exception to the rule against hearsay. However, "[a] statement tending to expose the declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement." Now, there are many questions in the Beach case that need to be resolve before even reaching Rule 804(b)(3), such as whether Maude is unavailable and whether Beach's appeal was timely.
Assuming, however, that these requirements are met, we are still left with the questions of why we have the "corroborating circumstances" requirement in this one circumstance and how it is satisfied. According to the Advisory Committee Note to Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3), this requirement is in place because there is "distrust of evidence of confessions by third persons offered to exculpate the accused arising from suspicions of fabrication either of the fact of the making of the confession or in its contents." In other words, we don't want a defendant to be able to achieve acquittal by getting a friend to admit to the crime, which is why corroborating circumstances are necessary.
When, however, do such corroborating circumstances exist? According to the petition for Beach, they existed because Maude repeated her statements to several people, but according to the State, this was an irrelevant or insufficient factor. Personally, I think it is a very relevant factor and agree with the five part test laid out by the Fourth Circuit in United States v. Lowe, 65 F.3d 1137, 1146 (4th Cir. 1995), which considers:
-(1) whether the declarant had at the time of making the statement pled guilty or was still exposed to prosecution for making the statement (here, Maude was still exposed to prosecution);
-(2) the declarant's motive in making the statement and whether there was a reason for the declarant to lie (as far as I can tell, there was no reason for Maude to lie);
-(3) whether the declarant repeated the statement and did so consistently (obviously, this is the lynchpin to the petition's argument);
-(4) the party or parties to whom the statement was made (the statements were made to family members and friends);
-(5) the relationship of the declarant with the accused (apparently, they weren't friends); and
-(6) the nature and strength of independent evidence relevant to the conduct in question (according to Montanans for Justice, the evidence against Beach is weak).
Again, this discussion is based upon a very rudimentary understanding of the case, and other issues may preclude this stage of the analysis from even being reached. Assuming, however, that this stage of the analysis is reached in Beach's subsequent appeals, I think he has a strong argument that all six factors are in his favor, allowing for the admission of Maude's statements.