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Belynda Goff of Green Forest has seen her hopes for executive clemency sink into despair yet again after serving 20 years in prison for the murder of her husband, a crime she's vehemently denied since her arrest in the 1994 death.

On this her third clemency appeal, Board Chairman John Felt depended on the word of only one of seven commissioners, John Belken, to deny the mother a clemency recommendation or hearing based on her 233-page request for "commutation to time served."

A well-reported news account by this paper's Cheree Franco also says Belken contends he read the entire clemency request and decided, because the crime involved murder and he didn't believe she was innocent, that she didn't deserve a hearing or favorable consideration by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The board went along with Belken.

If denied, another six years will pass before Goff can approach the board for clemency again.

One problem (of several) I have with this callous finding and the cursory way it was processed is that such a crucial decision placed all the power to recommend clemency in the opinions and biases of a single person, let alone the latest appointee to the commission.

That's not proper according to section 4.6 of the 2014 manual of the Post Prison Transfer Board, which mandates: "At least four board members will individually review" each clemency request before voting on whether to deny, grant or schedule a hearing before forwarding their recommendation to the governor.

The board's own policy doesn't allow for one commissioner to review an appeal for clemency then tell the others what he or she believes. Felt says Goff's appeal was available for all seven board members to review. Yet apparently only Belken was asked to do so.

Most distressing to me are the remarkable number of contradictions, omissions, missing crucial evidence and lack of physical evidence whatsoever in this appalling case. All I see are accusations, a largely implausible scenario, a judge in a hurry to get Goff's trial wrapped up and one stretched assumption after another. No weapon was recovered in Stephen Goff's homicide, no physical evidence linked Belynda Goff to the crime (lots of vague "consistent withs") and, according to Goff's lawyer, testimony excluded from the original trial indicates potential third-party involvement as part of an arson-for-hire scheme gone awry.

The Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit, was troubled enough by the obvious flaws to take on Goff's case in 2013. It filed the clemency request on her behalf. According to Franco's story, the group is "dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice."

In December 2013, the project's attorney, Karen Thompson, filed a request in circuit court to DNA-test physical evidence listed in Goff case police logs.

This verbatim excerpt from a hearing transcript in which Circuit Judge Kent Crow is questioning Carroll County Prosecutor Tony Rogers about the actual lack of blood evidence found in the bathroom provides one example for me of the questionable evidence used.

Court: "... I think Lt. [Archie] Rousey had testified that there was a substantial amount of blood, but the lab said that there wasn't enough to test from the bathtub drain. Is that correct?"

Rogers: "Well--well, that--that was what--that came--that is--that is correct, but you still had the--there was no--there was no blood splatter leading outside the apartment."

Court: "I understand there were no bloody footprints, there was no evidence outside the apartment. There also was no murder weapon. And the hammers and the dumbbells that were in the apartment were found to not have any evidence or residue on them."

Rogers: "That's correct, but I would--I would still say that in light of that, can--does--does DNA on someone else's person--they're--they're not bridging the gap between the DNA and the some--some nameless perpetrator."

The judge then ordered potentially exonerating DNA evidence being held for years at the state Crime Lab released for inspection by the Innocence Project. A Carroll County deputy signed that he'd received that evidence in Little Rock, yet it mysteriously vanished afterwards. The entire case unfolded much like this.

Goff's appeal contained 44 supporting letters, including from her two children with Stephen Goff, four trial jurors and the bailiff on duty during the sentencing portion of Goff's trial.

It's been my hope since learning of the Goff case that Hutchinson would take an interest in learning the facts of what happened to Belynda. I've hoped he would visit with her family, attorneys and others with firsthand knowledge of her highly questionable conviction and extreme sentence.

If Hutchinson would understand what occurred the night Belynda's husband died, I have to believe he'd follow his conscience and heart in choosing to overlook his board's flawed review and grant this woman the executive clemency she's earned after 20 years as a model prisoner helping other females behind bars.

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Mike Masterson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at mikemasterson10@hotmail.com.

Editorial on 06/02/2015

Print Headline: Flawed counsel

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