PATERSON, NJ – In a neighborhood where vacant lots dominate the landscape and drug dealers dominate the corners, Marie Ligon keeps fighting for change.
At the corner of Auburn and Governor streets, her Center of Grace community program tries to put convicts on the right path, connecting them to education opportunities, substance abuse counseling and job training.
Ligon reaches out to inmates even before they get released from jail. For 20 years, she has been bringing religious services into the Passaic County jail. Ligon believes in people even after others have lost hope.
But six weeks ago, Ligon’s faith was shaken – not in God, not in people, but in the criminal justice system. After a two-week trial at the Passaic County courthouse, the man who shot and killed her only son in August 2010 was acquitted of all the most serious charges against him. It was a homicide that triggered national headlines because it took place at the end of a National Night Out block party, an event that’s supposed to promote non-violence.
During the trial, the defendant’s lawyer acknowledged that 30-year-old Marlon Rochester, fired the fatal shot that killed 38-year-old Robert Godfrey outside Rochester’s home on Godwin Avenue, according to news accounts. But he said Rochester acted in self-defense on the porch of his home and that the shooting was accidental.
Ligon recalled sitting between her two daughters in the court room after the verdict was announced, holding their hands, and crying. “I felt like I actually died with my son,’’ she said. “The injustice. It was like his life didn’t even matter.’’
But Ligon doesn’t give up easy. Her two adult daughters – Treneisha and Angela Godfrey - have joined her in what they call a fight for justice.
They have collected letters from folks who knew Godfrey in hope that their tributes will convince the judge to impose as stiff of a penalty as possible on Friday when Rochester gets sentenced on the one charge for which he was convicted, a weapons offense. They are trying to get the FBI to investigate whether Rochester violated federal gun laws by allegedly bringing the weapon from Florida to New Jersey. They also are contacting immigration officials to see if the weapons conviction can get Rochester deported to Jamaica.
On top of all that, Ligon said she is paying a private investigator $2,500 to examine the case. Too many things don’t add up, she said, including conflicting versions over how far Rochester was from her son when he fired the fatal shot. By most accounts, the two men had a dispute earlier in the day over a woman. They exchanged words again late that night, just before the shooting.
There has been no indication that Godfrey was carrying a weapon when he was killed.
"Sometimes the sword of justice is bathed in tears,'' said Rochester’s attorney, Adolph Galluccio, addressing the unusal circumstances of the case. "It's a sad situation. Someone died. No one wants to see anyone die.''
During the trial, Galluccio used "misadventure" as his explanation of the shooting, that Rochester shot Godfrey by accident while defending himself. "Misadventure is when you kill somebody during a lawful act,'' Galluccio said. "I've been doing murder cases for 40 years and I've never used misadventure (as a defense) before.''
Galluccio said Rochester was a working man who had not been in trouble in the past. The weapons charge, he said, carried a jail term of between five and 10 years, with a minimum of three. "I expect him to get somewhere between five and seven at the most,'' he said.
In many ways, the story of Godfrey’s life and death is one that has become all too common in Paterson, a tug-of-war between right and wrong, between mothers and the streets, between hope and desperation. Twice, he was convicted on charges that he sold crack in Paterson’s 4th Ward. Twice, he served state prison time. Later, the consequences from those crimes – including the loss of his driver’s license - seemed to derail Godfrey’s efforts to follow the straight and narrow after he got out of jail, according to his family.
Ligon has no illusions about the problems in her son’s past. She saw it first-hand, and even tried to talk him off the corners by going to the spots where he had sold drugs. “Boy, you know you ain’t got no business being out here,’’ she recalls saying during one of their talks on Godwin Avenue, near Rosa Parks Boulevard. He had no choice, he would tell her. He had bills to pay, and nobody wanted to hire a felon.
Godfrey never got rich from selling drugs, according to his family. The car he owned when he died was broken down in need of repairs. Vacations? No money for that, except for when he went down to Myrtle Beach for family reunions in the Carolinas.
“He sold drugs to pay his rent,’’ said his mother.
Godfrey grew up in an apartment building at 10 Godwin Avenue, about a block from where he died. When he was 13, he left Paterson to stay on his aunt’s tobacco farm in rural North Carolina. “He didn’t like the city,’’ said his mother. “He liked the country. He felt free down there.’’
In North Carolina, Godfrey learned how to drive a tractor. He fed the livestock and injected the chickens with semen so they could reproduce. It was a different world from Paterson.
When he was in his senior year of high school, Godfrey’s mother took a job that made it difficult for her to look after her two daughters. Her son, the oldest among the children, came back to Paterson to help care for his sisters.
Within a couple of years, Godfrey lost his way and started selling crack, according to his mother. He got caught and convicted and spent 18 months at a correctional facility in Annandale.
After his release, Godfrey took a job in the city’s public works department, collecting garbage, his family members said. He stuck with it for 18 months and then moved on to something better. He became superintendent of a 50-unit apartment building in Passaic Park. For the next three years, things went well, according to his mother.
But then the building was sold to new owners and Godfrey lost his job, Ligon said. He looked for work again and wasn’t finding anything. Eventually, he returned to selling drugs on Godwin Avenue, and he was arrested again, according to his mother. He went back to prison in 2004, all the way down in Bridgeton in Cumberland County, almost three hours from Paterson.
Godfrey was freed in 2007 and somehow found a job at an electronics company in Ramsey, said his mother. He used the training he had gotten while attending a technical school years ago. But there was one problem. His license was suspended because of his drug convictions. Getting back and forth between Paterson and Ramsey was difficult. Sometimes, family members drove him. Sometimes, he took a chance and drove himself, according to his sister. Several times, police stopped him and issued him tickets, his mother said. Soon, the authorities came to know his car, and eventually Godfrey quit the job.
Godfrey turned back to the streets of Paterson’s troubled 4th Ward. He got a peddler’s license and sold coats, his family members said. He also resumed selling drugs, they said, switching his product from crack to marijuana.
According to his mother, Godfrey sold drugs from the porch of the house next to the one where he was killed. As far as she knows, Ligon said, her son’s dispute with Rochester had nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with a woman.
On the night of his death, Godfrey had manned the grilled at the National Night Out cook-out, according to family and friends. It was something he did often at 4th Ward community events, his mother said. Near the end of the party, he brought food to folks who couldn’t get out of their homes, his mother said.
After her son’s death, Ligon continued her ministry work at the county jail. She had settled into a schedule of conducting services for inmates on the morning on the first Saturday of every month.
In January, about a week before the murder trial started, something incredible happened. There among the inmates at the jail church service was the man accused of killing her son, Ligon said. Afterwards, she said, he extended his hand to thank her for coming to the jail.
“I shook it,’’ Ligon said, shuddering. “Did I want to beat him? Yes. Did I want to spit in his face? Yes. Did I want to pull out his dreads? Yes.”
“Did I? No,’’ she continued. “That’s not why I was there. I was there to teach church and love.’’
During the trial, Ligon and her daughters wore buttons with Godfrey’s picture on them. They were the first in New Jersey to take advantage of a new state law that allowed such tributes to the deceased in murder trials, according to attorney Richard Pompelio, director of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center.
But the photos seemed to have little impact on the jury. “It went as badly as it could have,’’ Pompelio said of the trial. “What can you say? In my career, I’ve seen this happen before.’’
During the trial, the defense lawyer often referred to Godfrey by his nickname, "Strong,'' according to Ligon. She believes that was a tactic to create an image of her dead son as a dangerous man, an attempt to bolster the argument that the killing was in self-defense.
But the nickname came not from the streets but from his membership in the Five Percenters, the group affliliated with the National of Islam, according to his family.
Godfrey seemed to know that he was heading for early death. Several times over the years, he had asked his mother to scatter his ashes near the corner of Godwin and Rosa Parks, where he got his first taste of trouble.
More than two years after his death, Godfrey’s ashes remain in an urn. This spring, Ligon plans to let them go. She says she will honor her son’s wishes, at least to a degree. Ligon said she will scatter some of his ashes at the corner of Godwin and Rosa Parks, as he wanted. The rest she plans to take down to Myrtle Beach to pour them into the ocean he loved so much.
“I’ve got to spread his ashes where he can be free,’’ she said.