The parade of unheard witnesses whose testimony could have shed relevant light on Belynda's Goff's conviction in the murder of her husband continues to swell, including one who would have told about threats in a dangerous arson scheme that may have led to Stephen Goff's June 1994 death.
In 2001, Belynda's brother, Chris Lindley, then a 38-year-old former U.S. Marine, testified at her appeal hearing that, about a year prior to his murder, Stephen repeatedly had asked him to participate in an arson scheme, which involved being paid $10,000 ($5,000 each) by criminals Stephen knew, to burn a warehouse near Flint, Mich.
Initially, Lindley reluctantly told Stephen he would participate, but then changed his mind. That's when Stephen grew angry, panicked and even wept while continuing to try to persuade his brother-in-law. According to Lindley's unheard testimony, Stephen said he'd already spent the money and faced being killed if Lindley backed out.
Lindley remained firm in his decision and several days later, Stephen indeed was murdered.
The appeals court ruled Belynda's trial counsel, Charles Davis, had been ineffective, in part for not calling Lindley to testify at her trial. Belynda's hopes soared when she was granted a new trial in that Rule 37 appeal. But our Supreme Court overturned the decision, saying failure to call Lindley was part of Davis' trial strategy. Certainly not a strategy I'd have chosen.
Lindley also testified that within days of Stephen's death, an unknown caller threatened him, saying if he talked about the arson plan, he'd find himself beside Steve: "You will be dead; your family will be dead." He said he immediately changed his phone number, sold his home, and moved. He said he also sent a letter explaining these details to then-Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In the year following Stephen's death, Belynda had moved with her children to a rental home authorities said was intentionally burned using some form of accelerant in the carport. It remains an unsolved arson.
Other potential defense witnesses (joining Lindley and three others cited in Saturday's online-only column) prevented from testifying by motions argued successfully before then-Carroll County Circuit Judge Tom Keith were Gayle and Shannon Howard.
The Howards would have testified that they'd been waiting to make a phone call in Green Forest on June 12, 1994 (the day of Stephen's murder). While there they overheard a young person talking on the telephone, saying words to the effect of, "we did not mean to kill him ... we only meant to hurt him," the trial record shows.
Had the Howards been allowed to testify they would have further sworn they relayed the one-sided conversation to the Green Forest Police Department after they arrived home where a family member insisted they contact police.
Say, I wonder if records from that phone were ever acquired to see just who that caller reached? Just a thought.
Meanwhile, a second juror in the Goff case sent an email message last week to say she believes Goff did not murder her husband. She told me: "My name is Brandy and I sat on the re-sentencing part of Belynda's trial. The only reason I was able to allow that sentence to go through was because when I walked in that room as a juror, Mrs. Goff had already been convicted of murder and I had zero say in that.
"So, based on that conviction was where my sentencing came from. Now, we had to hear most of the evidence that was given in the original trial and my opinion has always been that she is very much an innocent woman. I don't remember specifics of the case, but I do remember knowing the only reason I sentenced her to life in prison was because she had already been convicted. My opinion has always been she was wrongly convicted, but again that was not my trial. I don't know if my saying this means anything to you or not but I pray it gives you drive to continue to try ... Thanks for listening."
Seems to me this conviction likely still weighs heavy on the consciences of all the decent people involved in sending Belynda Goff away for life based on such an unbelievably flimsy and botched case.
Some of the other astonishing flaws included zero physical evidence, highly questionable testimony, DNA evidence inexcusably lost by the Carroll County sheriff's office, no murder weapon found, an implausible scenario, a judge expressing desire on record to end her trial early so he might entertain visitors, an immediately trampled crime scene, and failing to follow up on witnesses to the two mid-20s men with baseball bats parked in front of the Goffs' apartment just hours before Stephen was murdered with a blunt instrument inside his front door.
I continue to encourage every reader to examine the website freebelyndagoff.com and Google her name to get the fullest context of this astonishing story, which I can't possibly provide in this space, although I'm trying my best.
I've certainly never seen a more deserving case for compassion and mercy in 48 years of practicing this craft in five states.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 02/12/2019
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