Arkansas Democrat Gazette Column

‘Wrong for years’

By Mike Masterson

This article was published May 13, 2017 at 2:03 a.m.

The shameful case of Belynda Goff, the Green Forest mother who many, including me, believe was wrongfully convicted of murdering her husband Stephen in their home 23 years ago, finally is drawing the national attention it richly deserves.

Writing for the liberal Huffington Post website, contributor Hannah Riley, director of communications for the New England Innocence Project, published her latest compelling overview of the Goff travesty. Riley laid out some of many oversights, deceptions, misassumptions and missing evidence that have plagued this sad case since Stephen Goff was murdered on June 11, 1994.

Since her conviction and life sentence without parole, Goff has maintained her innocence, just as she did at trial when she refused a plea bargain because she would not plead guilty to a crime she didn’t commit.

After 46 years in this business and in the process investigating three different Arkansas men convicted of heinous crimes in separate cases being freed when fresh facts were later revealed, I can say to readers without equivocation that I believe Ms. Goff, a prisoner in the McPherson Women’s Unit at Newport, did not murder her husband.

At 54, she’s now spent more than 20 years behind bars, and many feel largely it’s because those in the criminal justice system in Carroll County all those years ago wouldn’t want to admit they were wrong. That sort of thing could be downright humiliating. But then, the truth matters greatly, and as the poet William Cullen Bryant once reminded: “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.”

And now Riley has brushed a bit more earth off the truths of this case with her story headlined “Arkansas has gotten it wrong for years.”

“For years, Ms. Goff has fought the many injustices heaped on her, both alone and with her family,” Riley quoted Goff’s attorney, Karen Thompson of the Innocence Project, saying.

Riley’s article then reviewed basic facts, many previously reported since 2014 in this column: On June 11, 1994, at 9 p.m. Belynda and Stephen were spending Saturday evening at home in Green Forest.

Stephen received a phone call. After a brief conversation, he said he was heading to a convenience store for cigarettes. Belynda eventually nodded off in front of the television. She roused herself around 10:30 and went to bed alone.

Belynda awoke about seven hours later. Entering the living room, she initially could see Stephen’s feet “barely visible from behind a low wall. As she moved closer, she saw blood splatter on the wall and door-frame behind his body. She shook his foot in an attempt to rouse him, and then began to scream.”

Riley wrote that EMTs and Green Forest police arrived not long after she called, and police drew up a knee-jerk hypothesis: Belynda had killed Stephen.

Such a rushed theory, Riley continued, triggered tunnel vision, “a very human (and very dangerous) condition, one that ensnared the entirety of the case, and, ultimately, the next 22 years of the Goff family’s life.”

Tunnel vision, Riley wrote, caused authorities to ask Belynda where she “hid the gun” and what prompted them to test her hands for gun residue even though Stephen had been bludgeoned, not shot. It also caused them not to dust for fingerprints on either side of the doorknob. Riley reported that one detective at trial said, “I did not try to find prints at any particular point in the apartment … I had already made up my mind that it was not necessary.”

There also was an abundance of relevant evidence the jury never heard, Riley wrote. For instance, Stephen Goff had become involved in an arson scheme in Flint, Mich. Belynda’s brother Chris Lindley wasn’t called to testify at her first trial, but testified at her appeal that Stephen had repeatedly tried to solicit his involvement.

“Chris initially agreed to participate in the arson,” Riley wrote, “but changed his mind and backed out soon after. Stephen was terrified when Chris relayed his change of heart, telling Chris that he had already spent the money and would surely be killed if they didn’t both go through with the crime.”

A few days later, Stephen was found dead. Two days after that, Chris received a phone call threatening his life. In a panic, Chris moved his family. About a year after Stephen’s murder, the Goff family home was burned in a still-unsolved arson, Riley wrote.

“On June 11th, before Stephen’s death, a neighbor of the Goffs called the police to report two suspicious men skulking around the apartment complex, often returning to their car, which had two baseball bats visible in the backseat. She initially reported the men out of fear for her children’s safety, but called police again to reiterate what she had seen after hearing the news of Stephen’s death. Other neighbors corroborated seeing the strange men,” Riley reported.

Another man came forward, telling police “that in the early hours of the 12th, he and a friend heard a group of men discussing a ‘blood bath’ in Green Forest, saying that someone had been badly beaten with a baseball bat. One of the men, they reported, had been carrying a baseball bat.”

There’s so much more to this shameful case. Read Riley’s complete story at tinyurl.com/huff-goff.

————v————

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

Editorial on 05/13/2017

Print Headline: ‘Wrong for years’

http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2017/may/13/wrong-for-years-20170513/

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Huffington Post Article by Hannah Riley

Arkansas Has Gotten it Wrong for Years

04/21/2017 09:00 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2017
Belynda Goff.

It has not been a good week for the state of Arkansas. Their grotesque plan to speedily execute 8 men in 11 days hasn’t gone as smoothly as anticipated, with multiple last-minute appeals and stays. One man, Ledell Lee, was executed last night, before the DNA in his case could be tested. He had long maintained his innocence of the crime.

This is not the first time the state of Arkansas has gotten it wrong. The proof? Belynda Goff. “For years, Ms. Goff has fought the many injustices heaped on her, both alone and with her family,” says her attorney Karen Thompson, of the Innocence Project. “Her case should command the same amounts of outrage that the men on death row have received this week.”

At around 9 PM on June 11th, 1994, Belynda Goff saw her husband, Stephen Goff, alive for the last time. Belynda and Stephen were spending a quiet Saturday evening at home. It was a typically warm summer night in Green Forest, Arkansas, a small city of less than 3,000 in the Northwestern tip of the state. At a few minutes past 9, Stephen received a phone call. After a brief conversation, he told Belynda that he was headed to the nearby convenience store for cigarettes, and left the family’s apartment. Belynda stayed on the couch in the living room, eventually nodding off in front of the television. She roused herself around 10:30, turned off the TV, and went to bed alone in the master bedroom.

Sunday, June 12th, would have been a typical work day for Stephen. No less than 7 hours had passed when Belynda was awoken – with still no sign of her husband — by the early morning alarm. After snoozing the alarm for several minutes, she got out of bed. When she entered the living room, it was Stephen’s lifeless feet that she saw first, barely visible from behind a low wall. As she moved closer, she saw blood splatter on the wall and door-frame behind his body. She shook his foot in an attempt to rouse him, and then began to scream.

Belynda placed a call to the operator immediately, and pleaded for help. The EMTs and the Green Forest police officer arrived not long after. After spending just a few minutes at the scene of the crime, the police drew up a hypothesis: Belynda had killed her husband. This rushed theory sparked a very human (and very dangerous) condition, one that ensnared the entirety of the case, and, ultimately, the next 22 years of the Goff family’s life. Tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision is what caused the police to ask Belynda, as she was sitting on the front step, attempting to compose herself just after finding her husband’s body, where she “hid the gun”. Tunnel vision is what caused the police to test Belynda’s hands for gun residue, when Stephen hadn’t even been shot – he had been bludgeoned. Tunnel vision is what caused police not to dust for fingerprints on either side of the doorknob. (At trial, when asked why he neglected to look for fingerprints, the detective replied, “I did not try to find prints at any particular point in the apartment…I had already made up my mind that it was not necessary.”) Tunnel vision is a widely acknowledged investigative bias that has had a corrosive effect on the cases of hundreds – if not thousands—of innocent people. It prompts an intense focus on a theory of events, and, like putting blinders on a horse, cuts off the import of any evidence that might contradict the initial theory. It is not a phenomenon exclusive to police; prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and jurors alike are all susceptible. But it’s the most destructive at the level of initial investigation, since all of the ensuing processes will feed off the first clues and theories culled by police.

The initial, unfounded suspicion of Belynda’s guilt led investigators – and eventually prosecutors, jurors, and a judge – down a rabbit hole of erroneous interpretations and outright fabricated evidence. She was arrested, tried, and, in 1996, convicted of first-degree murder. But perhaps, if the proverbial blinders had been taken off from the outset, the police would have been able to properly investigate the crime. If they had, here’s what they would have found.

In the year leading up to his murder, Stephen Goff was becoming precipitously involved in an arson scheme in Flint, Michigan. Though he was not called upon to testify at her first trial, Belynda’s brother, Chris Lindley, eventually testified at her appeal that Stephen had repeatedly tried to solicit Chris’ involvement in the arson of a building in Flint, which would purportedly conclude with a reward of a large sum of money (to the tune of $10,000). Chris initially agreed to participate in the arson, but changed his mind and backed out soon after. Stephen was terrified when Chris relayed his change of heart, telling Chris that he had already spent the money and would surely be killed if they didn’t both go through with the crime.

A few short days later, Stephen was found dead. Two days after his murder, Chris received a phone call threatening his own life; he was told that if he spoke out about the arson plans, he would find himself…”… laying [sic] right next to Steve. You will be dead; your family will be dead.” Panicked, Chris changed his number and moved his family. He’s now completely off the grid; his home has fallen into foreclosure and he hasn’t been heard from in over 5 years. The fear for his safety coupled with the burden of having a sister sentenced to life in prison for a crime she did not commit has effectively robbed him of his own life, too. And his fears were not unfounded: a little over a year after Stephen’s murder, the Goff family home was burned to the ground in a yet-to-be-solved arson.

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The jury at Belynda’s trial heard none of this.

On June 11th, before Stephen’s death, a neighbor of the Goff’s called the police to report two suspicious men skulking around the apartment complex, often returning to their car, which had two baseball bats visible in the backseat. She initially reported the men out of fear for her children’s safety, but called police again to reiterate what she had seen after hearing the news of Stephen’s death. Other neighbors corroborated seeing the strange men.

Another man came forward to police, telling them that in the early hours of the 12th, he and a friend heard a group of men discussing a “blood bath” in Green Forest, saying that someone had been badly beaten with a baseball bat. One of the men, they reported, had been carrying a baseball bat.

The jury at Belynda’s trial heard none of this.

Perhaps what is more shocking than what was not revealed to the jury, however, were the flat out lies that they were told.

The prosecution claimed that no one could possibly have left the apartment after the murder, because of the positioning of Stephen’s body by the front door. But people did enter and exit the home – the EMTs, the police, and Belynda and her son after the authorities arrived.

Once police latched onto the theory of the murderer remaining in the apartment, they had to find a murder weapon. The prosecution posited that a hammer found in the Goff’s home must have been the weapon, even though extensive testing revealed no evidence of blood. At trial, the jury was told that the hammer from the Goff’s home was unequivocally the murder weapon. The defense raised no objection.

A thorough search of the Goff’s apartment also found no blood – not in the laundry, not in the bathroom, not in the bedroom, not on any clothing. A minute DNA sample pulled from the bathtub drain was found to be consistent with Stephen Goff, but the presence of a man’s DNA in his own bathtub is hardly a smoking gun. Despite the sample being infinitesimally small, the jury was told that the lead investigator discovered enough of Stephen’s blood in the shower drain to “run down his hands.” Undeterred by the dearth of real biological evidence implicating Belynda, the prosecution posited that she must have cut up her bloodied clothes and flushed them down the toilet. During the investigation, police were so desperate to find any evidence pointing to Belynda’s guilt that they sent a team to the local sewage facility to search for the (non-existent) bloodied clothes, despite the fact that the theory had been concocted out of thin air. The multiple reports of strange men around the Goff’s building in the days preceding the murder were not once followed up on.

For Belynda, it’s not yet too late. It’s been twenty two long years, but it’s not too late. In 2014, her attorneys at the Innocence Project were granted DNA testing rights to the remaining biological evidence collected at the scene. While some hairs found on Stephen’s body were tested – and turned out to be his own – the remaining evidence, which included Stephen’s fingernail scrapings and more hair found on the body, has mysteriously gone missing after being picked up from the Arkansas State Crime Lab by a police officer in 2000. “I am thrilled that she continues to fight on,” said Karen Thompson, “and only wish that the important evidence that ‘went missing’ in her case (last accounted for in the hands of a Carroll County police officer), will be found so that we can conduct DNA testing.”

During the early years of her incarceration, Belynda tried to call her three children every morning so that she could still be the person waking them up for school. When her eldest son got married, the wedding was held on her birthday, and a seat saved in her honor. Her daughter named her first daughter – Belle – in honor of Belynda, and her second daughter – Liberty – in honor of the fight for Belynda’s freedom. To say that Belynda is fiercely dedicated to her family would be an understatement – yet she refused to plead guilty in exchange for a 10-year sentence, steadfastly maintaining her innocence even while facing the possibility of life in prison. Her children remain her most passionate defenders. “My mother has never given up nor denied her own innocence, though she would have been released years ago with a plea bargain, if she had,” her daughter Bridgette told me. “Her children haven’t given up either.”

Magic T-Shirt

First off, forgive the pause in postings. It wasn’t an oversight. We’ve been asked to keep a low profile while people are working behind the scenes. But we’re now officially back!

The other day I witnessed someone bust their lip open. The amount of blood was unbelievable and it trailed him as he ran.

It brought this case to mind, and for obvious reasons… How does one bludgeon a person to death and not get a drop of blood on themselves or the floor? Why, a magic T-shirt of course!

But don’t take my word for it. See for it for yourself. In closing arguments, the prosecutor (Kenny Elser) throws in a bit of new evidence that wasn’t discussed at all during the trial. He reasons to the jury that because there was no blood found on ANY of her clothing she wore a t-shirt while committing the crime. But this was no ordinary shirt. This magic shirt was capable of absorbing all of the blood as to not get it on her person or leave a single drop as Belynda scurried about to supposedly clean up a crime scene.

If that’s not magic I don’t know what is.

picture_20170206_102301162

Yes… How easy would it be to absorb an astronomical amount of blood with a t-shirt and tear it into tiny pieces with your fingers (of course no scissors or any other cutting/shredding device was found) and not get any blood on anything including yourself? Hmm… My guess is not easy at all. In fact, I’d say impossible but just to be sure, did they test the plunger to see if it had blood on it? NO…

But let us talk about the bathmat for a minute that the prosecutor mentions. It was there in the courtroom as an exhibit. Wow… How is it possible that after she cleaned up she placed the bathmat outside when they are so certain that Stephen Goff’s body was blocking the door?

Are you starting to see the red flags yet?