Have Mercy by Mike Masterson

Mike Masterson | January 22, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

Faithful readers know I’ve written more than a handful of columns spanning four years about the alarming plight of mother and grandmother Belynda Goff of Green Forest, now imprisoned over 22 years for first-degree murder. There are valid reasons behind such persistence.
Convicted in 1996, Goff was sentenced to life for the murder of her husband two years earlier, a crime to which the then-34-year-old refused to plead guilty because she said she wouldn’t confess to a crime she didn’t commit.

I’m yet again urging those who care about justice and fairness (remember Janie Ward?) to Google Belynda’s name and learn the facts behind this stinker of a case.
Karen Thompson, senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project in New York, has been diligently urging the criminal justice system and our governor to extend mercy, either by allowing Goff’s freedom for time served, or granting the woman a new trial, or deserved clemency. Thus far no responses.
It’s obvious this travesty is mired in the muck of politics.
So today, I wanted you read verbatim the “Preliminary Statement” from the motion to modify Goff’s sentence that Thompson filed Dec. 28 with the Carroll County Circuit Court. This 26-page motion seeks the guaranteed due process our justice system never afforded Goff.

“For nearly a quarter of a century, Belynda Goff has steadfastly maintained her innocence of the murder of her husband, Stephen Goff. In 1996, the Carroll County district attorney offered her a 10-year sentence if she would ‘admit’ to killing Stephen in their home. Knowing she did not commit the crime, and believing she could easily prove her innocence by refuting the ‘proof’ of guilt presented, Ms. Goff went to trial to prove her innocence. To her great horror, she was convicted. Put another way, Ms. Goff has now served over two decades of a life sentence for asserting her innocence; she would have been freed in 2006 (and likely even earlier given her exemplary record) if she had falsely entered a plea of guilty.
“Although this Court awarded Ms. Goff access to DNA testing, and although some of that DNA testing has been carried out, deeply probative evidence gathered from Stephen Goff’s body has never been submitted for testing because those items were either misplaced by the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory (‘ASCL’) or lost by a representative of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office (‘CCSO’), who signed for them at the ASCL but never signed them back into Carroll County’s evidence room.
“The DNA testing carried out to date has not, in any way, inculpated Ms. Goff. To the contrary, the results have all either been inconclusive or matched Mr. Goff’s profile. In light of these findings, it is clear the answers that could be revealed by probative evidence removed from Stephen Goff’s body–his fingernails as well as hairs on his shirt and hands–are simply invaluable.
“The statutory right to DNA testing afforded to Ms. Goff by this Court has, for all intents and purposes, been made impotent as critical evidence that could provide exculpatory information and challenge the conviction that has robbed Ms. Goff of her freedom cannot be found. This loss of significant evidence has crippled Ms. Goff’s ability to prove her innocence through a post-conviction DNA testing grant–a legal reality that is fundamentally unfair and thus robs Ms. Goff of her right to due process.
“For these reasons, Ms. Goff respectfully requests that this Court exercise its powers and modify Ms. Goff’s sentence to a 20-year time served plea and order her release from custody of the Department of Corrections, or, alternatively, order a new trial.”
It’s not as if Goff, now 57, hasn’t long since paid a deeply agonizing price, especially when you consider Arkansas taxpayers cover Carroll County Prosecutor Tony Rogers’ salary and he is spending their money keeping her incarcerated on such an incredibly weak case, and when the county’s own officers lost the evidence that might well have proven her innocence.
I also ask why, when the state willingly offered Goff a 10-year sentence for “manslaughter” in 1996, would he keep her incarcerated 22 years later?
Goff’s now-grown daughter, Bridgette Jones, said this: “Our words seem flat and ineffective. If you can imagine screaming with all your might begging for help and watching as people turn and walk away … that’s what we’ve dealt with over two decades. Our family has never been allowed to be victims. I lost my stepfather. My two brothers, Mark and Stephen Lee, lost their dad. But we’ve been discounted because we support our mother’s innocence.”
I’m sincerely hoping those who read about this astonishing case will respond by contacting Rogers at (870) 423-6869 and/or the governor at (501) 682-3623, or at State Capitol, 500 Woodlane St., Suite 250, Little Rock, Ark. 72201, or leaving a message through the website at governor.arkansas.gov.

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