LEWISTOWN — State prosecutors sought to undermine a convicted murderer’s claims that a gang of Poplar girls was really behind the 1979 slaying, as Barry Beach’s proof-of-innocence hearing tentatively closed Wednesday with a judge saying a second part to the unusual proceeding might be needed.
Beach is bringing forward new evidence that relies heavily on testimony from various people that a few women have over the years indicated they were involved in the crime.
But one of those women told The Associated Press in an interview after the close of the hearing that she had no involvement in the crime, as Beach’s backers allege.
Sissy Atkinson said rumors that she and other girls killed fellow student Kim Nees, 17 at the time
of the 1979 killing, are
“Never, ever, would I do it,” Atkinson said in an interview.
Atkinson speculated that some of those making the allegation, which has been a big part of a high-profile case and the subject of many news stories over the years, are attention-seekers building on the legend of the alleged gang-of-girls theory.
Atkinson, under subpoena, was never called to testify by Beach’s lawyers. Atkinson said she was looking forward to the opportunity to clear her name.
“I wanted to defend my honor,” said Atkinson, who lives in Poplar. “They got to go up there and say anything they wanted.
“I have never been brought down in
spirit over the years because I know I am really innocent.”
Beach’s lawyers have built a case based on testimony from former co-workers, friends and acquaintances of three women — Atkinson, Maude Grayhawk and Joanne Jackson Todd — that Kim Nees’ death was caused by a jealousy-fueled attack that got out of control. Grayhawk and Todd were not available for comment after the hearing but over the years have denied involvement when given a chance.
Prosecutors beat back the theory Wednesday.
Both Atkinson and Todd are under subpoena and could be called to testify.
The women, who have been subject to local rumors since the 1980s and Beach’s mounting accusations over the past decade, have previously denied any wrongdoing, and prosecutors never charged them with any crimes.
But former friends and coworkers’ said the women have privately acknowledged participation.
— Two former co-workers of Todd’s at a Missoula nursing home said Todd told them five or six years ago that she took part in a gang attack on a girl as a teenager in Poplar, an attack the co-workers were led to believe caused the girl’s death. Both former co-workers said they were incredulous, and didn’t believe it until seeing a network news magazine program on the Beach drama that prompted them to come forward with the information.
— A man who sold and used drugs with Atkinson in Great Falls said Atkinson acknowledged participating in such a crime long ago, although she didn’t use names and specifics varied with the telling of the story. Kevin Hall said that Atkinson believed bad “karma” from the attack had plagued her with bad luck all her life.
One woman offered eye-witness testimony, saying as a 10-year-old girl she and a cousin spied the event from a hilltop.
Steffie Eagle Boy of Wolf Point told the judge Tuesday that as a young girl, she overheard the sounds of girls fighting at the crime scene. She said she remembers it took place in the summer of 1979, but could not recall the exact date.
“I could hear all the girls hollering and yelling ‘get her,”‘ Eagle Boy said. “This other girl was saying, ‘don’t, please.”‘
Eagle Boy said a police car came shortly later and helped the alleged attackers, supporting Beach’s claims that relatives on the police force helped cover up for the girls.
Prosecutors pointed out Tuesday that older relatives of Eagle Boy’s, standing a bit farther back, testified at Beach’s original trial that they heard nothing.
In Wednesday’s proceedings, the original investigator said the gang theory was a rumor around town from the start — and no proof was ever found to substantiate it. Former sheriff’s investigator Dean Mahlum said wounds to Nees’ body indicated one attacker, not a gang kicking the girl to death, as alleged by Beach.
“We were dealing with a single perpetrator as opposed to a large group of people,” Mahlum testified.
Atkinson’s brother, Robert Atkinson, who was on the Poplar police force at the time of the crime, told The Associated Press during a break in the hearing Wednesday that he agreed evidence was mishandled originally. He also said Beach may not have had a fair shake at his trial and has probably served enough time for the crime.
But Robert Atkinson said he believes Beach is the killer based largely on Beach’s confession.
Robert Atkinson said he also does not believe that his sister, Sissy Atkinson, who had lived a rough life as a drug abuser, was involved. He speculated, however, that she might have taken credit over the years for the killing as a way to bolster her credentials among a tough crowd.
“She likes that reputation,” he said.
Sissy Atkinson said she never took credit for it, even just as a way to brag about the reputation.
Beach long ago confessed to the killing, describing how he forcibly tried to kiss Nees. He described in that confession hitting Nees with a wrench and a tire iron, then thinking, “Oh, my God. What have I done?” after checking her pulse and finding she was dead.
Beach argues the confession was coerced by out-of-state detectives who picked him up on another charge and refused to let him go.
Beach lawyer Peter Camiel noted Wednesday that those detectives misunderstood key facts about what Nees was wearing. Their misconceptions made it into the confession, showing it was contaminated and unreliable, he said.
District Judge E. Wayne Phillips said he may have to hold another hearing on the constitutional claims over the confession, the effectiveness of Beach’s original lawyer and the actions of the original prosecutor, former Gov. Marc Racicot. That could force Racicot to again testify about those events.
Racicot testified about the case in 2007 before the parole board, which roundly rejected Beach’s same claims. During that hearing, Racicot forcefully beat back implications that he was guilty of misconduct in the case.
Phillips said he will weigh the credibility of the evidence as he considers whether it reasonably could have altered the outcome had it been presented at Beach’s trial in the 1980s. A new trial could be ordered.