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?”
Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 02/16/2016