In its 1996 case against Belynda Goff of Green Forest, the state argued she murdered her husband Stephen out of alleged jealousy as he entered their Forest Court Apartments home in the predawn of June 12, 1994.
There, immediately inside their front door, she supposedly bludgeoned his head with a weapon that never was found or identified.
House and car keys lay beside Stephen's body, indicating he'd not been locked out, as the state claimed. After the attack, the state said, Belynda called the operator for medical assistance about 4:30 a.m. Obviously, the jury somehow agreed with this unproven scenario, since its members convicted and sentenced Goff to life (please visit freebelyndagoff.com).
Belynda's version was that Stephen received a call about 9 p.m. and announced he was going out for cigarettes, although stores had closed. The mother of three went to bed about 10, having taken sleeping pills prescribed after a recent hysterectomy. The youngest child, 3, crawled in bed with her. The other kids were spending the night with friends.
Awakening to an alarm about 4:30, she went to the living room and discovered Stephen's body. She said she immediately called the operator for help. EMTs and police soon arrived, shoving their way through the front door partially blocked by his upper body in the corner.
These conflicting versions appeared to either discount (or ignore) crucial trial testimony by Sherri Terrill, whose family lived immediately above the Goffs. Here's part of the testimony as then-prosecutor Kenny Elser questioned Terrill:
Elser: "... In the morning of June 12th the police officers came knocking on your door and woke you up; is that correct?"
E: "And they talked with you about ... anything you had heard ... or seen the previous night; is that correct?"
E. "Now, can you tell the jury what it is you had heard that night?"
T: "It was about 2 o'clock in the morning and my husband and I were watching a movie in the living room and my little girl was asleep in the bedroom, and I heard three knocks [demonstrates for jury] like that on the Goffs' door and then the door was opened, and just maybe a couple of minutes after that I heard some banging.
"It sounded to me like a broomstick on the ceiling, or something, like they was trying to get our attention, and there was probably maybe like five bangs then, and then right after that I went to bed. And about 4 or 4:30 in the morning my husband woke me up to ask me what this noise was and it sounded like Belynda yelling downstairs, and then a couple of minutes after that it sounded like a man's voice outside, and then I went back to bed and then about 5 or 5:30 the police came."
E: OK, Now when you say it was ... 2 a.m., how do you remember that? How did you remember that time as being the time ... somebody was knocking at their door?"
T: "I thought it was kind of late for someone to be having visitors, so I happened to look at the clock to see what time it was. ... I think it was 1:57."
Terrill told Elser her living room was right above the Goffs' front door.
In cross-examination by defense attorney Stevan E. Vowell, Terrill was asked if the first thing she heard was knocks at 1:57; she answered "yes," and said she and her husband discussed it, and both were wide awake and heard it, telling Vowell she heard knocks three times. She testified she heard the door open, but didn't hear conversation, but did hear banging. Vowell asked if it could have been something banging against the wall downstairs, and Terrill agreed. She said it was about one or two minutes from the time of the knocks to hearing the bangs.
Terrill also testified she didn't recall hearing water running downstairs (as she usually would have been able to) after the banging.
Had I been a juror in 1994, the glaring question resulting from Sherrill's testimony was obvious. If a supposedly enraged Belynda had been waiting to beat Stephen to death without speaking and using some unknown and never-discovered blunt-force weapon with her child in the next room, who was heard rapping on the door at 1:57 a.m.?
When answered, any subsequent noises were those hard, thumping sounds. And wouldn't Stephen have needed and used the keys found lying beside him to operate his car before gaining entry?
This related message arrived from Susanne Thurman the other day:
"I've followed your writings on Belynda Goff with interest, as I was the 13th juror at the trial in the summer of 1996. An alternate is dismissed as the trial ends and jurors begin deliberations. Therefore I was not privy to anyone else's opinion.
"But I can tell you this based on the evidence I listened to and took careful notes of, and carefully listened to Ms. Goff's testimony I would not--repeat not--have voted to convict her. I would have been the holdout if necessary. I certainly hope there will be justice for this lady. Thank you for taking the time to cover this ... not only recently but also a couple of years ago."
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 02/24/2019
Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: Who knocked?