State v. Beach

State v. Beach, 2013 MT 130 (May 14, 2013) (4-3) (Rice, J., for the majority, joined by Baker, J. McKinnon, J. and Dist. Judge Richard Simonton; McKinnon, J. concurring separately; Morris, J., dissenting, joined by Wheat, J., and Cotter, J.)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in concluding that Beach was entitled to a new trial because he had demonstrated his actual innocence.

Short Answer: Yes.


Facts: Twenty-four years after being convicted of the deliberate homicide of Kim Nees, and after a direct appeal, two petitions for postconviction relief, and an application for executive clemency, Barry Beach filed a petition for postconviction relief in state district court, alleging that new evidence proved his actual innocence. The district court denied the petition in a one-page order. On appeal this Court reversed and remanded for an evidentiary hearing.

Procedural Posture & Holding: On remand, the district court held a three-day hearing, and took testimony from witnesses suggesting a group of teenage girls had killed Needs. The district court concluded Beach had presented sufficient evidence of his actual innocence, and ordered a new trial. He released Beach from prison pending appeal. The state appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: To show actual innocence in postconviction relief, a petitioner must first present new reliable evidence that was not presented at trial. Reliability is determined by considering the evidence on its own merits and in light of the existing evidence in the record. The court must then consider the new reliable evidence with the trial evidence and determine whether a reasonable jury would find the petitioner guilty. On appeal, the Supreme Court applies de novo review.

After reviewing the trial evidence and the new evidence, the Court concludes that “the new testimony does not provide a reliable account of Nees’s death that displaces the trial evidence upon which Beach was convicted.” ¶ 75. Because he failed to satisfy the first step of providing reliable evidence, it is unnecessary to consider the matter further. However, even if Beach’s new evidence were reliable, the Court concludes that a reasonable jury would still likely convict Beach of the crime.

Justice McKinnon’s Concurrence: Justice McKinnon believes Beach I confused the law governing postconviction “innocence” claims, and would therefore limit Beach I  to the present case. She first explains the two avenues pursued by Beach in his postconviction petition: (1) § 46-21-102(2), MCA, and (2) the fundamental miscarriage of justice exception from Schup, in which a petitioner must show that, in light of new reliable evidence, it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have voted to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If he makes that showing, he passes through the “gateway” and may then argue the merits of his underlying constitutional claims, which would otherwise be time barred.

Because Beach’s conviction became final before the effective date of § 46-21-102(2), this claim was dismissed by the district court, and affirmed by the Supreme Court in Beach I. Although the district court held Beach did not satisfy the standard for his second claim, the miscarriage of justice exception, the Supreme Court noted that the lower court had not discussed the legal standard it applied.  The Court remanded with instruction to conduct an evidentiary hearing and evaluate Beach’s evidence under the correct legal standard. Beach I, ¶ 51. But Justice McKinnon believes the Beach I analysis is incorrect in three ways: (1) it is based primarily on Clark, which addressed a motion for a new trial under § 46-16-702, MCA; (2) it does not clearly state that a sufficient showing of factual innocence in a Schlup claim leads only to judicial review of a trial-based constitutional claim, which may lead to a new trial, but never leads directly to exoneration; and (3) it did not clearly state that a petitioner bringing a Herrera claim must meet a higher standard of proof of factual innocence than a petitioner bringing a Schlup claim.

Justice Morris’s Dissent: This Court remanded for an evidentiary hearing to apply the standards and procedures set out in Beach I. These procedures are the law of the case. The district court weighed the evidence and concluded Beach had demonstrated his actual innocence and met the higher burden of proof for a freestanding innocence claim. The district court “scrupulously attempted” to comply with this Court’s instructions on remand. Because Justice Morris cannot say the lower court’s rulings rise to the level of abuse of discretion, he would affirm.