Time served: Jackson orders Goff's release from prison
By Scott Loftis
Belynda Goff walked out of the Carroll County Detention Center in Berryville as a free woman Thursday morning after serving more than 22 years in prison for the 1994 murder of her husband, Stephen, in a Green Forest apartment.
Carroll County Circuit Judge Scott Jackson ordered Goff’s release at the conclusion of a resentencing hearing Wednesday morning in the courtroom of the Carroll County Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville, but Goff spent one more night in the county jail because of a delay in processing her release paperwork.
Goff, 57, was convicted by a Carroll County jury of first-degree murder in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison. After the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a re-sentencing hearing because the original trial judge had improper contact with jurors during their deliberations, a second jury in 1998 again sentenced Goff to life in prison.
Stephen Goff was found beaten to death in the family’s Green Forest apartment on June 12, 1994. Belynda Goff has always maintained her innocence and rejected a plea deal before her original trial that would have required her to plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence. No DNA evidence has ever linked Belynda Goff to the crime and no murder weapon has ever been conclusively identified.
Goff’s case eventually drew the attention of The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization based in New York that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people, primarily through the use of DNA testing. Attorneys with The Innocence Project have represented Goff since 2014.
On Wednesday morning, the Berryville courtroom was packed with friends and supporters of Goff as Jackson announced his ruling. He cited several factors in the decision, including the fact that at least two witnesses who could have provided potentially exculpatory testimony were not called to testify at her original trial. Even more significant, however, was the fact that physical evidence in the case — fingernail clippings from Stephen Goff and hair samples taken from his hands — that had been in the custody of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office has been lost.
Belynda Goff’s attorneys argued that advanced DNA testing of that evidence — which was not possible before her conviction in 1996 — might have yielded results that would aid in her defense.
Jackson referred to Arkansas Code Annotated 12-12-104, a statute that requires law enforcement agencies to permanently retain physical evidence following any conviction for a violent offense.
“ACA 12-12-104 charges the local sheriff’s department with maintaining custody of evidence and does not provide Ms. Goff a remedy if that evidence is misplaced,” Jackson said. “I do not find, nor is there any indication, that there was any bad faith — just a lot of years have passed, the sheriff is located in a new building, several different sheriffs come and go in the last 23 years, so I think it was something that was inadvertent but happened. And that happenstance denied Ms. Goff the right to further scientific testing. The court feels that there should be a remedy.”
Jackson’s ruling does not set aside Goff’s conviction. Instead, Jackson sentenced Goff to 393 months in prison, with 120 months suspended. He also ordered that she be given credit for 273 months — the amount of time she has already served in the Arkansas Department of Correction.
Although Goff’s conviction stands, his written order expresses Jackson’s belief that Goff likely would be found not guilty if she were granted a new trial.
“(T)he Court finds compelling evidence that a new trial would result in an acquittal of the Defendant, Belynda Goff,” Jackson’s order says.
As part of Jackson’s order, Belynda Goff is prohibited from contacting Stephen Goff’s grown children from other relationships as well as their immediate families.
Goff’s attorney, Jane Pucher of The Innocence Project, asked Jackson at Wednesday’s hearing to order that Goff be released directly from the Carroll County Detention Center. Goff served most of her sentence at the Arkansas Department of Correction’s McPherson Unit at Newport, but had been held in the county jail for the past few months in order to attend local hearings.
“That’s appropriate,” Jackson said of Pucher’s request.
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearing, Goff remained in the courtroom with her attorney and supporters for about two hours, waiting for a written order to be prepared and signed. She was then transported back to the county jail and was expected to be released later Wednesday afternoon. Instead, there was a delay in processing paperwork that forced Goff to spend Wednesday night in jail.
She was finally released shortly before 11 a.m. Thursday. A small group of family and supporters gathered in the lobby of the Carroll County Law Enforcement Complex to greet her. Dressed in a blue paisley blouse and slacks, with her long gray hair released from the ponytail she wore in court Wednesday, Goff shared long embraces with her three grown children before posing for photos outside the building.
Court documents indicate Goff will live with her daughter’s family.
“We’re very grateful for the proceeding that happened today and that Ms. Goff has an opportunity to return to her family and to live in the community again,” Pucher said after Wednesday’s hearing.
Carroll County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rodgers said immediately after the hearing that it would be inappropriate to comment on Jackson’s ruling. He later was quoted by another newspaper as saying his office would issue a press release regarding the case. Rodgers did not return a call for comment Thursday afternoon.