In 1983, Jean Parks watched sheriff’s deputies lead a skinny man with curly hair and oversized glasses into a Wake County courtroom — the first glimpse of her sister’s accused killer.
As she watched Gary Goldman’s trial unfold, Parks held doubts about his guilt. But the young man in glasses never testified in his own defense, never said he was innocent, and and he didn’t protest when the guilty verdict came down. So Parks assumed he did murder Betsy Rosenberg, a 24-year-old graduate student at N.C. State University.
Naively, she says now.
In August, after 36 years, Parks met Goldman again. This time he wore no handcuffs, and through his glasses, looked straight into her eyes. In a room at Campbell University in Raleigh, Parks spoke to Goldman for the first time — her doubts about his guilt changed to near certainty of his innocence.
“I never did hate you, even when I thought you were guilty,” she told him. “I feel like we both got screwed by the same person ... and by the system that failed to find the actual killer. And that feels like a bond.”
“I hear the past is past and you can’t change it,” Goldman said back, in a recording of their meeting. “Well, you can’t change it, per se, but I’m hoping it can be made right.”
This reunion at Campbell’s law school came three months after Goldman’s parole from North Carolina prisons at 62, having spent nearly all his adult life behind bars. Parks requested the get-together and Goldman accepted, a meeting encouraged by Parks’ steady belief that the courts punished the wrong man.
Though Goldman’s release was aided by Parks’ support and years of work from the nonprofit N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, he has not been cleared of the crime. Through its executive director Chris Mumma, the center says it continues to search for the true killer.
“For me,” Mumma told them both, “finding Betsy’s murderer is really important. For Betsy, really important for you, and for justice.”
A brutal murder without leads
By the time Goldman went to trial, the case was eight years old.
Rosenberg was killed in 1975 on her way home from studying past midnight at the D.H. Hill Library. She bragged to her friends that she’d scored the best parking spot on Hillsborough Street, the N&O reported at the time.
Before she could reach her car that night in May, she was bludgeoned to death.
After all this time, Parks still hates to think of details. Police identified the murder weapon as a metal pole with a chunk of concrete still attached to the bottom, weighing as much as a barbell.
Found on the ground, Rosenberg no longer had the shoulder bag she had been carrying, which contained a wallet and credit cards, court records said. Rosenberg’s husband, Edwin, heard about it at home, awakened by a call from police.
Officers interviewed more than 100 people in the following days without an indictment, which finally came more than six years later in December 1981.
At the Center on Actual Innocence, Mumma said she finds that date interesting.
Raleigh cold cases
In August of that year, the now defunct Raleigh Times published a front-page article announcing then-Police Chief Frederick K. Heineman was placing new emphasis on unsolved murders, and he had formed a task force to crack them.
The story explained the task force was a year old at the time but the “Big 3” murders cited by Heineman still had no suspects.
One of those murders involved a St. Augustine’s College student, Helena Payton, who had been stabbed to death in her dormitory bathroom in 1979. But the story also mentioned Rosenberg’s death. The task force had worked on it along with another detective.
Heineman said detectives had travel budgets and overtime, their own polygraph operator and frequently used hypnosis. They stuck with a case until it was solved.
“(They) are employing a full-court press for the entire length of the game,” he said in the story. “That’s successful. It keeps the adrenalin flowing, the momentum flowing. It keeps apathy out of the investigation.”
Four months after that story appeared, Goldman was indicted.
The St. Aug’s case took longer. In 1988, James Blackmon entered a guilty plea in Payton’s murder. Acting on an anonymous tip, police interviewed him at Dorothea Dix Hospital, where he was a patient. During that interview, he wore a Superman cape and boasted of being able to control the weather.
Last month, Blackmon was exonerated by a three-judge panel, which declared him innocent after he had spent more than three decades in prison.
Mumma and the center believe Goldman’s case was similarly flawed, and she noted the same Raleigh police detective worked both cases.
At the time of his indictment, Goldman was an inmate in a Georgia prison, charged in another murder. And in 1983, fellow inmate Franklin Adams told a Raleigh jury that Goldman had given a vivid account of beating a girl to death with a metal pole. At trial, Adams said he could not say if he was receiving any benefits from his testimony.
Jurors also heard from Tracy Current, a teen at the time of Rosenberg’s killing and living at Haven House, a drug rehabilitation center. She said Goldman threw pebbles at her window late on the night of the murder, and that the two of them smoked marijuana together in the Raleigh Rose Garden nearby. She noticed scratches on his arm and said he told her, “She got worse.”
Mumma said at the time of Goldman’s parole that she visited Current in 2013, and she went by a married name at the time. She was hostile throughout the interview, Mumma said, saying she was supposed to be an anonymous witness.
But when Mumma told her she was working on physical evidence to prove Goldman’s innocence, Mumma said the former witness told her: “That is what I’ve been praying for. I’ve been praying for him to find the truth. But I can’t help you.”
She has since died, Mumma said. At the meeting, Goldman said the first time he ever saw Current was the day she took the witness stand against him.
New Leash on Life
The reasons behind for any inmate’s parole are protected by state law and not made public. But there is little question Parks made a difference. Last year, she wrote state officials saying she did not object to Goldman’s release.
“I owe you a lot,” he told her in their August conversation. “Not only for the help that you did but for basically turning your world upside-down. At least you had somebody to hate, and I took that away from you.”
“I never did hate you,” Parks said back. “If I dig deep. And I had this story that the prosecution told, and I worked toward forgiveness with that story.”
Goldman lives with family in Durham now, where he is trying to find a job.
Behind bars, he got involved with New Leash on Life, a program in which minimum- and medium-custody inmates partner with animal shelters to train dogs that are difficult to adopt. He hopes to find that sort of work in his new life on the outside.
He feels no bitterness. His worst day of freedom beats his best day of confinement, he told Parks. She nodded back.
“There’s no way that I can begin to thank you,” he said, looking at her. “The only thing that I can think to do is try to make as much of my life as I can and dedicate it to you.”
“I had reached the point where, even if you were guilty, I thought it was time to be out of prison,” she told him. “I do hope you have success in what you choose to do and happiness. Just a good life. I don’t feel like you need to dedicate it to me.”