The Innocence Project, which takes up cases of convicted prisoners where strong evidence points to unjustified convictions, has mounted a campaign to get Gov. Mike Beebe to consider a clemency request for Belynda Goff of Green Forest before he leaves office.
It seems a long shot. Beebe’s use of clemency power has been restricted to lesser offenders who’ve discharged sentences. (A Beebe family friend and his own son’s marijuana conviction have been recipients of clemency consideration.) But the case remains worthy of attention. As the project recounts:
On June 12, 1994, Belynda Goff walked out of her bedroom and into the living room of her apartment to find her husband, Stephen, lying unconscious just inside the doorway. She immediately called to request emergency medical assistance. The paramedics arrived ten minutes later. Despite the quick response by both Belynda and the paramedics, Stephen died from his injuries.
An autopsy revealed that Stephen’s cause of death was blunt force trauma to his head. This is a fact. When it comes to Stephen’s death, very few other facts have been conclusively established. No murder weapon has been found, no witness has attempted to identify Stephen’s killer and no physical evidence has linked anyone to the murder. Yet Belynda Goff has languished in prison for two decades..
Multiple witnesses have come forward to say that Stephen’s murder was the result of his involvement in an arson scheme and that Belynda had no involvement in his death. The Innocence Project is performing DNA testing on evidence in Belynda’s case, but some crucial pieces of evidence have gone missing, so testing may never be able to fully vindicate Belynda.
Goff’s case has been the subject of court appeals and periodic news accounts. She is serving a life sentence. This website is devoted to the case.
A more detailed narrative about Goff by the Innocence Project follows:
In 1994 Belynda lived in Green Forest, Arkansas with her husband, Stephen, their two young sons, Mark and Stephen Lee, and her teenage daughter Bridgette. Belynda worked at the local Tyson plant but always tried to arrange her schedule so she would be home when her children arrived home from school. She never missed one of their Little League games or cheerleading events. Belynda was a committed member of her church in Berryville and taught Sunday school.
On the night of June 11, her husband left their home around 9 pm. He told Belynda he was going out for cigarettes. Belynda watched some TV, then went to bed around 10 or 10:30. Stephen still was not home.
During the night, her three-year-old son, Stephen Lee, crept into her bed and slept beside her. Belynda woke up some time between 4 and 4:30 am when the alarm went off. She went into the bathroom, then walked into the living room. She saw her husband laying by the front door and called his name. He did not respond. She went closer and saw his face was bloodied. Hysterical and screaming, Belynda called the operator and said her husband needed an ambulance. The police and paramedics arrived.
But instead of offering help, the police offered accusations. As she sat outside just moments after finding her husband’s body, the police asked what she had done with the gun, and later that morning conducted a gunshot residue test on her hands. They mistakenly believed it was a shooting; in fact, Stephen was bludgeoned to death. Belynda was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. She has always maintained her innocence.
Overwhelming evidence of her innocence has come to light:
– Stephen was allegedly involved in an arson scheme and had his life threatened shortly before his death. In 2001 Belynda’s brother, Chris Lindley, testified at her appeal that over the course of about one year prior to the murder, Stephen repeatedly asked him to participate in the scheme, which reportedly involved getting paid $10,000 by two men to burn a building in Flint, Michigan. At first, Chris said he would help but when he told Stephen he had changed his mind, Stephen became panicked. According to Chris, Stephen said he had already spent the money and would be killed if Chris backed out. A few days later, Stephen was found dead. The appeals court ruled that Belynda’s trial counsel was ineffective, in part, for not calling Chris to testify at her trial. Belynda was granted a new trial but another court overturned the decision.
– Two days after Stephen’s death, Chris said he received a phone call from an unknown person threatening that “[i]f you open your mouth, you’ll find yourself laying right next to Steve. You will be dead; your family will be dead.” Chris immediately changed his phone number, sold his home, and moved. A little over a year after Stephen’s death, Belynda’s home was burned to the ground in a still unsolved arson.
– Someone else reported the crime. A female identifying herself as a nurse at “Carroll General Hospital” called the police dispatcher at 4:29 am on the morning Stephen’s body was found and said a “beating death” had occurred at Stephen and Belynda’s address. This person provided information not yet known by the police who initially thought it was a shooting.
– A neighbor saw two men with baseball bats parked in front of Belynda and Stephen’s apartment on June 11, the evening before Stephen’s body was found. The neighbor reported the incident to the police that day and again after Stephen’s murder.
– Belynda rejected a plea deal for 10 years when she faced a life sentence because she would not admit guilt to a crime she did not commit.
Despite Belynda’s wrongful conviction, she remained a mother to Bridgette, Stephen Lee, and Mark. While her young children lived with her mother during the early years of her incarceration, Belynda tried to call them every morning to wake them and make sure that they didn’t miss the bus. “A little piece of us wasn’t connected until that phone rang and we heard her voice,” Stephen Lee writes in a letter included in Belynda’s clemency petition. When Mark got married he held his wedding on her birthday and saved her a seat. When Bridgette became pregnant with her second child, she did not look at the ultrasound results because she wanted her mother to tell her the news. She sent them to Belynda, who responded by placing a pink ribbon in an envelope and sending it back to Bridgette. This daughter, born in June, was named Liberty, for Belynda’s struggle to be free. While imprisoned she has mentored other inmates, and joined the Paws in Prison program, training dogs for children with disabilities.