Another Great Article

Belynda Goff: Innocent and incarcerated on another Mother’s Day

 

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Belynda and her daughter, Bridgette

Today marks Belynda Goff’s nineteenth Mother’s Day as an incarcerated mother, serving a life sentence for a murder she did not commit.

In 1994 Belynda, then 32 years old, lived in Green Forest, Arkansas and worked at the local Tyson plant. She was a mother of three – Stephen Lee, 3 years old, Mark, 7, and Bridgette, 15. “I was a mom, that’s what I did,” Belynda told me. “I was a little league, cheerleading mom.” On the night of June 11, 1994 she was home with her husband, Stephen, and their son, Stephen Lee. Around 9:00 pm Stephen received a phone call and told Belynda he was going out for cigarettes even though, as Belynda told him, the store was closed. She headed to bed around 10:00 or 10:30 pm. Stephen was still not home. During the night Stephen Lee crawled into bed with her.

At about 2:00 am her upstairs neighbors heard a knock on the Goffs’ door, and then shortly later, what sounded like banging on the ceiling. Between 4:00 and 4:30 am Belynda’s alarm went off. She went into the bathroom, then the living room. It was there that she saw Stephen, in the corner of their doorway, bloodied. His blood spattered keys lay nearby. She became hysterical and dialed the Operator for help. The paramedics and police arrived shortly thereafter.

The police theory of the crime – developed almost immediately – was, as the prosecutor would tell jurors: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Stephen had been unfaithful in the past and so, the State argued, Belynda must have killed him in a rage when he came home that night. On the morning her trial was to begin, Belynda, facing the prospect of a life sentence, was offered a plea deal of 10 years. She rejected it.“The only thing I said in response to my attorneys was, ‘But I didn’t do it’,” she told me.

Belynda and I first met over letters about seven years ago when I worked on her case at the Innocence Project as a Case Analyst. I would grow to know her and her daughter, exchanging cards and phone calls, photos of our children, news of death, births and illness. On the day I taught her case in my wrongful convictions class at Rutgers University I wore the scarf she had made me.

 

“I have thought over the years in moments of sadness and pain if I had just took that, I’d be home,” she told me of the plea deal. “But my other voice says: yeah, but you’d be home, called a murderer and you would have represented a falsehood.”

The police could not find bloody weapons or clothing in Belynda’s home so they surmised she must have cut up the clothing and flushed it down the toilet. While the police failed to find evidence to corroborate their theory, evidence that someone else had killed Stephen began to emerge.

The evening before Belynda found her husband’s body, a neighbor had seen men with baseball bats parked in front of Belynda’s apartment. Fearing for her children’s safety, the neighbor reported the sighting to the police that day and again after the murder.

According to Chris Lindley, Belynda’s brother, Stephen had asked Chris to join him in an arson scheme. They were to burn down a building in Flint, Michigan for $10,000. When Chris told Stephen he wanted to back out, according to Chris, Stephen became panicked, begged him to reconsider and told him that he (Stephen) had already spent the money and would be killed. About a week later Stephen was found dead.

Two days after the murder Chris received an anonymous call stating he would be killed next if he opened his mouth. Belynda’s home was burned down before trial in a still unsolved arson.

The State sought to have Chris’ allegations excluded from the trial arguing that it was – as tunnel vision dictates – “irrelevant.”

Tunnel vision is the scientific method, inverted. As Wisconsin Innocence Project Director Keith Findley wrote in his exhaustive analysis of tunnel vision: “Evidence inconsistent with the chosen theory is easily overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant, incredible, or unreliable.”

On August 5, 1996, Belynda was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“Prior to the trial I told Mark that they could say guilty and they could say not guilty,” Belynda told me. “I can remember him asking me, we were in the dining room at the house there, what if they say guilty? And all I could say was sweetheart we have to pray that they don’t. I remember very clearly when they said guilty I can remember just hearing my son just crying behind me and that just broke me.”

May 11, 1997 would be her first Mother’s Day behind bars.

“Prison itself is not torment I don’t think, not for me any way,” Belynda told me. “My torment is being away from my family and children.”

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Belynda with Mark and Stephen Lee shortly after she entered prison

Despite the physical separation, Belynda says, she was determined to remain a loving presence in her children’s lives.

 

“I just rarely let a day go by that I didn’t somehow communicate with them that I loved them,” said Belynda. “It was important to me that they knew that I was still here, I was still there for them.”

She called them every day before school to be sure they were ready for the bus. They mailed pictures to each other, drawings from their childhood she calls her “treasures.” She and Bridgette would watch the television show Alias and then call each other to discuss it afterwards.

“The first Christmas, oh that was so hard, the very first Christmas, I can remember, I can laugh now without crying I think but boy oh boy,” Belynda told me. “It was Christmas Eve. I was just talking to my youngest son, Stephen. I said, ‘Oh my goodness! You know what I just saw – and of course I’m seeing nothing but a brick wall but – I know I just saw a sleigh ride by. I think Santa’s on the way. You better go to bed and make sure you’re asleep because if he’s passing here he must be on the way.’”

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Belynda with Stephen Lee and Mark

As her children grew older they found ways to include her in their milestones. Mark chose to get married on Belynda’s birthday and saved her a seat at the wedding. When Bridgette became pregnant with her second child she sent the ultrasound results to Belynda so her mother could tell her the baby’s gender; Belynda sent Bridgette a pink ribbon in response.

Belynda, now 54 and a grandmother, remains hopeful that, one day, she will be exonerated.

“I don’t know when this battle is going to be over,” she told me. “Letting go of hope – I still can’t seem to do it. You let go of hope you let go of life.”

 

Arkansas Woman Convicted of Husband’s Murder Seeks DNA Testing and Release For the Holidays

Dare to Think

A recent article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called Belynda Goff’s imprisonment “appalling”.  Goff is currently seeking clemency from outgoing Governor Mike Beebe or incoming Governor-elect Asa Hutchinson.  Goff was convicted of murdering her husband, Stephen, in their home in 1996.  She has always maintained her innocence.  There is evidence that Stephen was killed by people he may have stolen money from, who were involved with an “arson for hire” scheme.

The Innocence Project is currently conducting DNA testing of crime scene evidence that could prove Belynda’s innocence, but because pieces of crucial evidence have gone missing, testing may not be enough.  If Governor Mike Beebe does not act on her case before his term expires then the clemency request will move to Governor-elect Hutchinson.

Democrat-Gazette columnist Mike Masterson writes that officials should “take a careful look and do the right thing”.

It all began on June 11, 1994 at 9…

View original post 626 more words

Journalist Mike Masterson’s Take

MIKE MASTERSON: Justice impersonated

Goff denied

Posted: February 16, 2016 at 2:24 a.m.

Our state’s had plenty of cases impersonating as justice. There’s the Janie Ward disgrace where the teenage girl from Marshall died of a separated spinal column during a party; for more than 20 years her violent death has remained unresolved.

Lately, we’ve endured a different form of travesty caused by our state’s Department of Environmental Quality (cough) quickly, quietly and accommodatingly allowing a hog factory of some 6,500 swine to operate in the ecologically fragile watershed of our Buffalo National River, the country’s first so designated.

Now I see yet another. Karen Thompson, attorney for the Innocence Project in New York, says the petition for clemency submitted to Gov. Asa Hutchinson on behalf of inmate Belynda Goff of Green Forest has been denied.

Belynda has served 20 years of a life-without-parole sentence based on her 1996 conviction despite inexplicably missing DNA evidence, excluded records and witness testimony, as well as no hard evidence to justify her conviction, much less such an extreme sentence.

I say that because anyone with common sense, including lawyers and law professors who examine what happened to this mother following the beating death of her husband, can’t help but be startled by what they learn. Every Arkansan would benefit from visiting the family’s informative website, Free Belynda Goff. Draw your own conclusions.

Belynda remains imprisoned because she declined a plea bargain of 10 years in exchange for her guilty plea. She’s proclaimed innocence from the night of her husband Stephen’s 1994 murder, vowing she’d never plead guilty to a crime she didn’t commit. Would you?

In researching what I know of this deeply troubling case spearheaded at the time by Carroll County investigator Archie Rousey (now retired), it seems most likely that her husband was bludgeoned to death in the predawn just inside the Goffs’ front door, possibly because of Stephen Goff’s reported involvement with an arson ring.

Belynda’s trial has long struck me as anything but justice. Her daughter, Bridgette Jones, said the single drop of purported blood found in the Goffs’ bathroom turned out not to be blood, according to a state Crime Lab finding the family received that was revised from the finding presented to the jury. The jury also never heard from Jodi Morganson, who said men with bats reportedly were inquiring about the Goffs’ residence on the day of Stephen’s murder. The list of obvious flaws in Belynda’s case are too numerous to detail here.

Like many others I’m disillusioned with our state’s refusal to approve this mother’s justifiable plea for clemency.

Thompson of the Innocence Project said, “She’s given a life sentence by a jury that didn’t hear at trial any evidence supporting her innocence, and the original prosecutor offered her 10 years. She’s been in for nearly 20 and is being punished with life in prison simply for maintaining her innocence. They had no viable evidence to prove her guilt. None. Their theory of guilt was nonsensical.

“They [Carroll County Sheriff’s Department] ‘lost’ critical evidence–the most critical evidence–in this case, although they managed to keep every other single piece of evidence collected at the crime scene,” she continued. “I asked for a hearing to find out what happened to that evidence from the last officer who touched it. His response was insane. This is a travesty of justice.”

In November, Thompson questioned former Carroll County deputy Greg Lester under oath about his signature documenting that he’d indeed picked up potentially crucial DNA trace evidence from the state Crime Lab. That evidence vanished without explanation. With Rousey present in the courtroom during Thompson’s questioning, Lester testified that he didn’t recall anything about his trip to Little Rock for the evidence, or what became of it.

Shawna Day was released from the women’s prison in December and formed a prisoner advocacy group called Echoes. She knew Belynda well in prison, as do so many inmates Belynda helps without bitterness.

“Belynda was an inspiration while I was incarcerated,” said Day. “She challenged me to rise above my circumstances, as she does every day as an innocent woman locked away. She’s truly a woman out of place in that environment. Yet she uses her tragedy to help better those around her by being an example of class, dignity and clarity.

“As director of Echoes I cannot explain how disheartening this decision is,” Day continued. “If the governor’s office will not consider those who are innocent for clemency, how do the guilty who’ve reformed themselves inside have any hope?”

————v————

Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 02/16/2016

 

Let’s Play a Game…

Let’s play a game. It’s called you be the judge. I am going to post two pages from a trial transcript.  In a highlighted area you will see comments from Judge Tom Keith, Prosecutor Kenny Elser, and Officer Archy Rousey. Next I am going to show you the  actual crime lab report pertaining to the testimony given by Rousey.

You be the judge, tell me if you see anything wrong here.

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Homicide investigator, Archy Rousey, testifies that he took a photo of a blood spot on a bath rail. Think reader… If you’re in a court room and the pictures are facing a jury, why would the prosecutor ask that one “circle the area where the blood spot is in the photograph”? Surely he can see it. This is clearly for the dramatic play on the jury. He wants to ensure that they can see the damning evidence. Rust 2

The evidence is so damning that Judge Keith himself says the identified blood speaks for itself.

The only problem is that the judge, prosecuting attorney, and Rousey know that what is being circled in that photograph isn’t blood. However, it is red, it will make a mark on the jury, and they run with it. The issue is what the crime lab had to say.

Screenshot Lab Report 2

Due to a lack of DNA recovered from the bathtub rail no genetic comparisons could be conducted… Reader, you can get DNA reading from something as small as the head of a pin, even evidence that is more minute – microscopic. Why couldn’t they get a reading from something so large it could be photographed and testified to as being blood splatter?

Because it wasn’t blood. Perhaps it was rust?

Twenty years later Belynda Goff is behind bars today because of this testimony from Archy Rousey and the comments made by judge Tom Keith.

You be the judge. You have a voice? Use it.

 

http://governor.arkansas.gov/contact-info

https://www.facebook.com/asaforarkansas/?fref=ts

http://www.4029tv.com/

http://abcnews.go.com/Site/page?id=3068843

 

 

Police Officer Has Sudden Bout of Amnesia on Stand

On November 9th of 2015 a hearing was held in the Circuit Court of Carroll County, Arkansas. This hearing was a deposition to question former police officer Greg Lester. Through research the Innocence Project of New York came across a document showing that Lester picked up integral DNA evidence from the state crime lab in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the last person known to have the physical evidence.

It’s important to remember how this hearing even came about. The evidence that Lester had went MISSING. The Innocence Project was granted the right to test this evidence for DNA by a judge. When the attorney went to Carroll County to collect the evidence it was gone… Not just the DNA evidence but all of the paperwork pertaining to it. If this raises questions in your mind, please know we’re just scratching the surface here. This hearing was to ask Lester exactly what happened to the evidence but as the title of this post explains, instead of providing this information under oath, Lester seemed to have a sudden bout of amnesia and proclaimed himself unable to remember much of anything about his life during the time period in question.

During this recent hearing Lester was directly asked who his supervisor was during his employment at the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. His exact answer was “I don’t recall”. The funny thing is that his former supervisor, Archy Rousey, was sitting in the front row, directly in front of him during this hearing. It is also worth noting that these two men maintained near-constant eye contact throughout the entire hearing.

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Archy Rousey has long since been retired. This hearing was not announced in the papers or radio. What exactly is he doing here and as one legal professional said, “what is his perverse obsession with this case about”? Majority of his retirement speech in the local paper was about Belynda Goff. This is strange. It is his retirement and all he can think to talk about is a 20 year old crime? It’s especially strange that he would choose to talk about this one subject considering all of the experience he boasts about having. You can read the article here. What may be even more strange is the reaction of local prosecutor, Tony Rogers, when Rousey’s name was brought up during the hearing.

Per spectators, “Rogers became upset at the mention of Rousey’s name and started raising his voice.” Another says, “I’ve never seen anything like it, when they mentioned Archy Rousey he just lost it.” Many people stated that it was clear that Lester was coached on what to say and not say on the stand. He denied being at the crime scene and denied interviewing Goff that morning… That is until the attorney was able to show Lester the transcript of his interview he stated never happened.

The prosecutor was seen being “buddy buddy” with Rousey at the time of the hearing, performing questionable actions like escorting Rousey out and to the back the building, talking in hushed tones. And let’s not forget the witnesses who heard the prosecutor yelling outside the courthouse that he was “sick and tired of this case” (so professional, right?). Well quite a few of us are sick and tired of this case as well, Mr. Rogers. As more and more people learn of this injustice Belynda Goff’s supporters grow in numbers. You should know that this case is not going away and you should start preparing for much much more of it.

Another Column Urges Justice for Belynda

Mike Masterson continues to write to try to secure justice for Belynda. From a recent column:

The next development in her case will unfold at 2 p.m. Monday in the Carroll County Courthouse in Berryville. There, an Innocence Project attorney and another from an international law firm will question Gary Lester, the last officer to see and handle the potentially crucial DNA evidence that inexplicably went missing (along with paperwork) after the state Crime Laboratory turned it over to local police.

My point is to yet again ask the board and our governor to do the right thing by this mother and grandmother who has spent her time behind bars helping other female inmates in many ways. She has fought off understandable personal frustrations and periods of hopelessness as fellow inmates (recognizing her innocence and the glaring injustices in her case) have written letters of support for commuting her sentence of life without parole, as have jurors in her trial and the court bailiff.

TGIFF: Thank Goodness It’s Freedom Friday

Here is some innocence news from around the world:

Benjamin Radford writes about how New York fugitive sightings highlight problems with eyewitness errors. Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide, according to the Innocence Project.

Jerry Mitchell reports that the expert whose bite-mark evidence led a jury to put Eddie Lee Howard Jr. on Mississippi’s death row now believes such evidence should be tossed. “I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis,” forensic odontologist Michael West of Hattiesburg testified in a 2012 deposition, Mitchell reports. “I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.”

Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being held at Rikers Island for three years for a crime he did not commit, wrote a paper on solitary confinement while attending college after his incarceration. Our thoughts are with Mr. Browder’s family.

Thank Goodness It’s Freedom Friday

Today we are introducing a new feature to the site called TGIFF (Thank Goodness It’s Freedom Friday.) This will be a time when we highlight news from the week as it relates to Belynda’s case and innocence work from around the world. If you’ve seen a story that you think we should mention, please email us at freebelynda@gmail.com.

Debra Milke, who spent more than 20 years on death row, had her murder charges dismissed. Milke was convicted of murdering her four-year-old son. “She was innocent. It was all based upon a police officer that just totally lied,” her attorney said outside court. “To see her free today and totally free and exonerated, it’s an unbelievable feeling — just unbelievable.”

Karen Daniel of the Center on Wrongful Conviction’s Women’s Project, which works on cases of wrongly convicted women, wrote about the problems with Pixar’s new film, Inside Out in a piece called, Pixar Movie teaches future jurors wrong lesson on memory.

There are 1600 exonerations on the National Registry of Exonerations! We can’t wait until Belynda joins the list!

We have added new documents to the website! You can read letters from Belynda’s children, jurors from her trial, and Judge Finch, who ruled she should be given a new trial.

Jurors: Goff’s freedom should be restored, she should be allowed to return to her family

Four jurors from Belynda’s trial, the bailiff from her re-sentencing, and Judge Finch, who ruled that she should receive a new trial but was overturned by another court, have submitted letters which were included in Belynda’s clemency application. We have posted their letters in our Documents section of the website:

Judge Finch: “I do believe you were poorly represented at trial and that the circumstances of your case are unlikely to ever occur again.”

Four jurors: “I was a juror in State vs. Belynda Goff… After careful consideration, I am asking that you grant clemency to Ms. Goff. I feel her freedom should be restored and she should be allowed to return to her family.”

Bailiff from her re-sentencing: “I met Mrs. Goff while acting as bailiff at her re-sentencing, during which time I came to believe she had been wrongly convicted. I began to correspond with her in prison, and in all this time my belief in her innocence has only grown.”

Please add your voice to help bring Belynda home. Write to Governor Hutchinson and ask your friends and family to do the same.

Changes to the website and our twitter account

Hi everyone,

If you’re looking to learn more about Belynda’s case please start looking at the Documents section of our website. We have posted Judge Finch’s opinion in which he ordered Belynda a new trial. Unfortunately, his decision was overruled by another appellate court. Judge Finch lays out the overwhelming evidence of Belynda’s innocence and the evidence the jury never heard.

Also, we are using our Twitter account to tell people about Belynda’s case but also to share news about wrongful convictions and exonerations from across the country. Follow us @freebelynda.

Thanks for your support!

Your friends at Free Belynda Goff