Goff entitled to re-sentencing, Jackson rules

Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Belynda Goff is escorted to a transport vehicle to be returned to the Carroll County Detention Center after a hearing Monday in Carroll County Circuit Court. Judge Scott Jackson granted a motion by Goff’s defense attorneys asking for a new sentencing hearing.
David Bell / Carroll County News

By Scott Loftis

CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com

Belynda Goff left a courtroom in handcuffs for perhaps the last time Monday in Berryville.

Goff has served more than 22 years of a life sentence after being found guilty of first-degree murder in the June 11, 1994, bludgeoning death of her 40-year-old husband, Stephen. But Carroll County Circuit Judge Scott Jackson ruled Monday that Goff is entitled to a re-sentencing hearing based on a variety of issues raised by defense attorneys including Karen Thompson of the New York-based Innocence Project.

Among the issues raised by the defense were the loss of evidence in the case — specifically fingernail clippings from Stephen Goff and hair samples taken from his hands. The defense also noted that no DNA testing has linked Belynda Goff to her husband’s death and no murder weapon has ever been found.

The defense also noted that neighbors in the apartment complex where the Goffs lived in Green Forest had reported hearing strange noises coming from the Goffs’ apartment on the night of the murder. Other neighbors reported seeing unknown men lurking around the apartment complex the day before the murder.

Defense attorneys argued that investigators focused on Belynda Goff as their only suspect and failed to look into other possible suspects.

In the defense motion that led to Monday’s hearing, defense attorneys note that an acquaintance of Belynda Goff, Anita Bellefeuille, testified at her trial that she had threatened to “bash his head in” over alleged infidelity. However, the defense says Bellefeuille’s husband, George, contacted The Innocence Project in 2013 to say that he was present when the comment was allegedly made and that “this was never said.” George Bellefeuille said that his wife testified in exchange for having charges against her relating to bad checks dismissed.

Arson scheme?

Defense attorneys say Stephen Goff approached Belynda Goff’s brother, Chris Lindley, in the months before his death about participating in an arson-for-hire scheme in Flint, Mich. Lindley initially agreed to participate, defense attorneys say, but later informed Stephen Goff that he would not. Stephen Goff then became very agitated, according to Belynda Goff’s attorneys, and told Lindley that he would be killed if the scheme wasn’t carried out.

A little more than a year after Stephen Goff’s death, the home where Belynda Goff and her children were living was destroyed in an unsolved arson.

Attorneys for both sides presented arguments after the hearing began at 9 a.m. Monday. After hearing those arguments and statements from the five Goff children, Jackson called a recess until 11:30 a.m., when he delivered his ruling.

Jackson scheduled the re-sentencing hearing for Friday, June 28, denying defense attorneys’ request to hold it immediately after issuing Monday’s ruling. Jackson also denied a defense request to consider releasing Goff on bail, but granted a request that she remain in the Carroll County Detention Center until the re-sentencing hearing rather than be returned to the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ McPherson Unit at Newport.

Jackson also allowed Goff, 57, to remain in the courtroom briefly to talk with relatives and other supporters after Monday’s hearing.

“I want you to know, and I mean it from my heart, that I’m grateful to every one of y’all,” Goff told the group that included her three grown children — daughter Bridgette Jones and sons Mark and Stephen Goff Jr.

All three of Belynda Goff’s children addressed the court regarding the impact the case has had on their lives. So did Stephen Goff’s two grown daughters, Abra Johnson and Leah Goff Dean, both of whom said they believe Belynda Goff killed their father.

Before issuing his ruling, Jackson urged onlookers in the packed courtroom to attempt to minimize their reactions. He also addressed the Goffs’ children on both sides of the aisle.

‘A rippling effect’

“Stephen Goff’s murder has had a rippling effect on his five children. That’s obvious today,” Jackson said. “Abra, it denied you the right to reconnect with your father, and that does not go unnoticed. Leah, the fact that you had a fight with your father shortly before his death and were not able to meet to reconcile, those kinds of things have a lifelong effect. Bridgette, Mark and Stephen, you lost your father and your mother’s in prison. The five of you lost each other.”

Jackson recalled sitting in on a portion of Belynda Goff’s first trial.

“When I was a young lawyer back in 1995, I was in the courtroom when that trial was going on,” he said. “I sat through part of it. I remember today the pictures that were introduced … it was a very grim scene.”

Plea deal was offered

Jackson noted that prosecutors initially offered Goff a plea deal that would require her to plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence.

“Mrs. Goff, approximately, has served 22 years and seven months so far,” the judge said.

Jackson described the state law at issue in Monday’s hearing — Arkansas 16-112-208. That statute addresses court procedure in cases where new scientific evidence is introduced after a conviction.

“The normal application is that when new evidence is presented and new evidence may be tested, that the court allow that and then consider that in post-conviction cases,” Jackson said. “I know that both sides feel that what’s just in this case is something that’s different for both sets of Stephen Goff’s children. I understand that. I understand how personal and important it is to them. This ruling that I’m making is trying to do what’s objectively procedurally just in this case.”

Jackson said three factors seemed “extremely important” in the case.

“The petitioner has offered evidence from new sources, from Bellefeuille, from Lindley and possibly from the neighbors in what occurred that night,” Jackson said. “The court is also considering that an initial plea offer was 10 years in this case and Mrs. Goff has done two and a quarter times that amount. The state has misplaced the evidence that she requests to be tested to offer even more new evidence in this case. It was not used at the trial but technology has advanced since 1996. In reaching the decision under 16-112-208, the court is applying the new evidence, taking into consideration the record and history of the case, and in this case the fact that evidentiary items were lost and there is now an inability to test. There is reason for the court to conclude that a different sentence may be reached, and I’ll grant the motion to conduct a re-sentencing hearing under the statute.”

Goff sat quietly for most of the hearing. At Thompson’s request, her restraints were removed before the hearing began. She sat between two attorneys, clad in an orange jail jumpsuit with her long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. Wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, she seemed to lose her composure briefly just once, as she turned to face her supporters with Jackson’s permission after the hearing ended.

After the hearing, Thompson expressed mixed emotions.

“We’re thrilled that Mrs. Goff is going to be re-sentenced,” Thompson said. “We’re disappointed that she’s not going home to be with her family today.”

After talking briefly with her family and supporters, Goff was escorted out of the courtroom by a county detention officer. She stopped briefly to smile for a photographer, then stepped into a county transport vehicle to return to jail and await her next day in court on June 28.

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