BILLINGS, Mont. – A convicted murderer who was freed without bail while awaiting a new trial enjoyed his first hours of freedom by swimming in a hotel pool and eating at McDonald's.
Barry Beach, 49, said food smells and tastes totally different outside Montana State Prison, where he has spent nearly 29 years serving a 100-year sentence for a murder he says he didn't commit.
District Judge E. Wayne Phillips ordered the new trial last month, and on Wednesday released Beach pending those proceedings, which have not been scheduled. The state plans to appeal the granting of the new trial to the Montana Supreme Court.
"I went swimming last night," Beach told KULR-TV on Thursday. "We opened up the Yogo Inn swimming pool and we went diving."
Beach stopped at McDonald's when he arrived in Billings, where he will work at a restaurant owned by a supporter. He ordered a quarter-pound cheeseburger and a strawberry milkshake.
"The taste, the smells, the colors, you now. I'm enjoying it all," he said. "This is why I was fighting, because this is the world I never should have been taken from."
Beach was sent to prison after being convicted of killing 17-year-old Kim Nees of Poplar in 1979 on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Phillips said there was enough evidence to raise doubts about Beach's guilt after a court hearing last summer in which witnesses linked Nees' death to an out-of-control fight among teenage girls.
The state argues that Beach confessed to the crime. Beach said the statement was coerced, and there is no evidence linking him to the crime.
After his release, Beach got his driver's license and stopped at a bank and his mother's house in Laurel. He was learning how to send text messages and take pictures with a cellphone. He even plans to take over a Facebook page that was started on his behalf in 2010.
The Billings Gazette said Beach was recognized at a post office and church. Complete strangers congratulated him. Some even handed him a couple dollars.
"It was so exciting," said James "Ziggy" Ziegler, who testified Wednesday that Beach could live with him and his wife and work at their restaurant. "Everyone at the restaurant congratulated him. We have not got one negative comment."
Beach also stopped at the probation and parole office, just to check in as a courtesy. He is not on probation or parole, but release conditions include not drinking alcohol or obtaining a passport. He cannot leave the state without the attorney general's consent.
The judge put the burden to report any violations to Ziegler, who has helped many inmates transition back into the community.
"I got a call from some lady. She said, 'I have never been a fan of yours, but I sure like what you're doing for Barry,'" Ziegler said. "I'm going to call her back. I need all the fans I can get."
Beach said he's learning to appreciate the little things in life and is looking forward to having Christmas dinner surrounded by family and friends, choosing what he is going to eat and dishing it up himself.
"Sometimes suffering and tragedy brings you to a point where you really find out who you are," Beach told KULR. "There's not time to be bitter, there's not time to be angry. Enjoy it. This is what I fought for. It's worth every bit of it."