Four months have passed since a sheriff's deputy escorted 59-year-old Belynda Faye Goff into the circuit courtroom at Berryville wearing an inmate's orange jumpsuit and chains to be freed by Judge Scott Jackson after the 23 years she'd served of a life sentence in the 1994 bludgeoning murder of her husband Stephen at their Green Forest apartment.
Jackson's decision did not exonerate Belynda of the crime she always has insisted she didn't commit. Rather, after hearing an abundance of evidence and testimony, the judge ordered her original life sentence be reduced to nearly a quarter-century behind bars.
He also determined that sufficient doubts and questions regarding her conviction had been raised to show the outcome of a new trial could well have resulted in acquittal.
In prison, Belynda became an exemplary inmate who never reflected the bitterness many in her circumstance would understandably harbor. Instead, she worked to help fellow inmates better themselves in many ways. In short, she became a beloved and respected beacon of light within a dark and callous system.
That June day when Belynda finally walked into freedom and the arms of her grown children has since evolved into the chill of fall in another state where she now lives with her caring family that never stopped supporting their mother's innocence.
They are busy helping make her transition into the free world as smooth as possible. I can't imagine how I'd feel being set free after having spent 23 years in a confined and routine prison existence. Her three children had been young when she was imprisoned in her mid-30s.
I reached out to Belynda the other day, hoping to learn how life has been since summer and what she is doing now to find purpose and direction. We had never previously spoken beyond hellos and thank-yous, although I'd written about details of her flawed conviction many times over the past four years.
These initial months of freedom have felt strange in many ways, especially trying to adjust to the entirely new world of technology that has exploded in 23 years. "The world I left is not the world I came out to find. Technology we have didn't exist then," she said. "For instance, I can actually talk on a phone that's not connected to anything! I'm still learning to catch up."
Her days have mostly been filled with getting acquainted with three grandchildren, ages 5 through 12. "I baby-sit a lot. The reality of being with children and grandchildren is overwhelming to my heart," she said.
She enjoys walking them to the bus stop for school each morning and collecting them in the afternoon. "I had only known them and watched my own children grow into wonderful adults from afar without a mother or father in their lives. And thanks to God, they have turned out wonderfully.
"There were the letters and phone calls, but having them actually in my life day to day is yet another blessing," she continued. "I awaken to hearing them say 'good morning, grandmother.' I can't tell you what that does to my heart."
After receiving a life sentence in 1996, she said she considers herself blessed and highly favored to have had her life unfold as it has. Belynda feels deeply indebted to Jane Pucher and Karen Thompson, attorneys with the Innocence Project who represented her for years as she languished behind bars. "They were a Godsend," she said. She also expressed gratitude to the judge, and Prosecutor Tony Rogers who, through their understanding and actions, helped restore the faith she'd lost in the criminal-justice system.
Asked if she ever felt institutionalized in prison, as happens with many after decades of confinement, she said the ordeal was very difficult, especially knowing she did not murder her husband. "But I told myself I may have to go through this, but I will not become this. I was a simple woman for the most part, a traditional soccer mom with a job and daily responsibilities. But I also was blessed with a strong mind and a spiritual strength that allowed me to keep my life in perspective in that rough environment.
"One just can't understand it unless they have been through it," she continued. "I've wrestled with so many things emotionally day by day and through the years." She endured largely by focusing on helping fellow inmates in various ways and joining groups like Moms in Prayer that met regularly.
As for her feelings about the many inmates and friendships she left behind and the ordeals she endured there, Goff said she never believed it was her place to judge others. "I always prayed God and his grace would help me to see others through his eyes rather than my own. It was very hard not only because I knew the truth about my own wrongful conviction, but because I was in a daily environment with many who were so different than me."
Belynda said she has purposely avoided many requests for media interviews. I'm pleased this is one the mother and grandmother accepted.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 10/29/2019
Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: A life of freedom