HELENA — The Montana House Wednesday endorsed a bill giving the governor power to overrule the Board of Pardons and Parole on clemency decisions for felons — a measure spurred in part the case of convicted murderer Barry Beach.
The House endorsed House Bill 43 on an 86-14 vote, setting up a final vote this week before the measure proceeds to the Senate.
“This is just one check and balance in a rare occurrence in our judicial branch,” said Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, the sponsor of the bill.
Under current law, the governor has the power to grant executive clemency to convicted felons who request it, by either pardoning them or adjusting their sentence.
However, on non-death-penalty cases, the governor cannot consider the case unless the Parole Board recommends clemency.
HB 43 says the governor can consider any clemency application regardless of the board’s recommendation. It also says the governor can order the board to have a hearing on a clemency request if the board denies a hearing.
Beach, who has long proclaimed his innocence in a 1979 murder, applied for clemency in 2013, asking that his 100-year, no-parole sentence be commuted so he could be considered for parole.
A three-member panel of the Parole Board denied his request and refused to send it to the governor for consideration — even though Gov. Steve Bullock had sent a letter to the board supporting Beach’s request.
Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, argued against the bill Wednesday, saying the Parole Board has been doing a good job and doesn’t need to be second-guessed.
“This is a bad bill based on one isolated case,” he said, referring to the Beach case.
MacDonald, however, said HB 43 is not just about the Beach case and that other examples exist of the board denying clemency with no explanation, even though the applicant appeared to be a good candidate for clemency. Only about two-dozen requests for clemency are filed each year.
MacDonald said Montana is one of only eight states where the Board of Pardons and Parole can block a clemency request without the governor being able to intervene.
Before endorsing the measure, the House also amended the bill to say the governor may not consider clemency for any of his or her personal relatives or close associates.