MASTERSON ONLINE: Jurors, bailiff sought mercy
by Mike Masterson | Today at 4:30 a.m.
If you believe my concerns over the tragic 1996 conviction and imprisonment of Belynda Goff of Green Forest are just ol’ Mike off on a ranting crusade, you’d be mistaken.
More than a handful of people involved with this travesty—including four jurors, her former attorney and even the court bailiff in Goff’s first-degree murder conviction—have written state officials for a decade seeking her release, all to no avail.
Today, the 57-year-old mother and grandmother remains in the Department of Correction McPherson Women’s Unit at Newport, having served more than 22 years of a sentence that would have been 10 had she accepted a manslaughter plea agreement in 1996.
She refused the offer because she wouldn’t concede guilt to savagely bludgeoning her husband Stephen to death in 1994. Instead, Belynda put her hopes into the purported integrity and wisdom of the justice system.
Similar letters addressed both to the governor and members of our state’s Parole Board in 2008 from four jurors—Harvey Butler, Ronald Young, Clara Tittsworth and Janice Head—each sought clemency for Goff, who they even then believed was deserving.
Janice Precure, retired Division III circuit court bailiff in the 19th Judicial District West, told me she also sent the following letter to Governor Asa Hutchinson last week. It’s the second she’s written in a decade.
“I was the judge’s bailiff at the re-sentencing hearing for Belynda Goff, held in Carroll County. … Listening to the testimony at that hearing, I became seriously concerned that this woman was not guilty of the crime for which she had been previously convicted: concerned enough to read the entire transcript of the original trial, and was stunned at what I considered to be both the lack of incriminating evidence and testimony through which she had been found guilty.
“I subsequently began a correspondence with Ms. Goff in the Department of Corrections, and I can say that nothing in the intervening years has changed my mind about her innocence. I have helped her cause in whatever ways I could, including polling the original jury, three of whom admitted to having serious doubts about their guilty vote, including one who claims to have never recovered from the shame of having cast that vote.
“It is well-worth noting that the prestigious Innocence Project is now involved in the Goff case. I, too, think Belynda Goff is innocent: that she did not receive a fair trial according to the principles of our democracy, and that if released she will once again be a productive member of our society. It is my understanding that at least one of the judges in her case, in addition to one of the prosecutors, have agreed that Belynda Goff has certainly served a reasonable amount of time for the sentence of manslaughter, and approve of her release.”
Then there’s the letter from trial attorney Stevan E. Vowell of Fayetteville, who sent the following letter supporting clemency to the Pardon and Parole Board and Department of Community Correction in January 2009. “I was co-counsel with Mr. Charles E. Davis of Springdale … in Ms. Goff’s trial, appeal and re-sentencing proceedings. Therefore, I am knowledgeable concerning the facts of her case. I am not naïve enough to believe that all of my clients are innocent. To the contrary, I normally go into a case with a very skeptical view of my client’s protestations of innocence. “However, Ms. Goff’s case is entirely different. I have always believed, and still believe, that she is innocent. The state’s case against her was based entirely on circumstantial evidence, and I am still surprised that the jury found that evidence to be sufficient. “I believe Ms. Goff would be a very productive member of society and a very law abiding citizen if released. Of that I have absolutely no doubt. She has three children, two of whom have had to grow up without her, and I believe she deserves the opportunity to be a compete mother to them in the free world. … I strongly support her request for clemency.”
Goff’s children are now 40, 31 and 28. Meanwhile, I’m clarifying important points made by the anonymous commenter called “Identification” whose online comments were published in my Tuesday column. “Identification,” who retains a bizarre, 22-year interest in Goff’s conviction, wrote this about the night Stephen Goff was beaten to death just inside his doorway: “The time of his death corresponds to the time of a disturbance by an upstairs neighbor, where a locked-out Mr. Goff is hammered to death upon entry.”
Well, not only was the murder weapon never found or identified (certainly not a hammer), but Karen Thompson, senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project representing Goff, says she was troubled by “Identification’s” erroneous statements of documented events that night. “‘Identification’ makes it sound as though there was a disturbance ‘by the neighbors.’ In fact, it was the neighbors who heard knocking on the Goffs’ door at 2 a.m., followed by the door opening, then approximately five bangs that sounded like a broomstick hitting the ceiling,” Thompson told me. “That disturbance was likely caused by the true perpetrator of this crime.”
“In addition, Mr. Goff’s house keys were laying beside his body, by the door, as noted in the police report. Mr. Goff wasn’t ‘locked out.’ Additionally, two other neighbors told police about men lurking around the neighborhood with baseball bats around the time of the murder. These neighbors were never called to testify. This is a classic instance of what is known as confirmation bias, and ‘Identification’ misrepresents the record.”
I continue to hope readers will familiarize themselves with the details by reading through the website FreeBelyndaGoff.com. I’m also hopeful Carroll County Prosecutor Tony Rogers and/or our governor will ignore politics, see the truths about this case and mercifully free Ms. Goff either through clemency or time served.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org