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Gordon guilty verdict, complete story

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Minutes after a Stone County jury found Richard Gordon, of Viola, guilty of the murder of his neighbor, Joseph Clifton, 32, Denise Clifton faced jurors to plead that Gordon "spend his life behind bars," before they deliberated on a sentence.

But first, Denise, Joseph's wife, turned to speak directly to Gordon. Holding her son, Jenkins, 4, who had been left in the pickup with his father's body after the shooting, Denise released nearly two years of fear, sorrow and frustration.

"Mr. Gordon, there are no words to describe the tragedy you have caused," said Clifton. "Joseph Clifton was a loving husband, father and friend... You will never understand what a horrible thing you have done to our community, to me, but most of all, to Jenkins. You have robbed him of his future with his daddy."

Richard Gordon, 63, was arrested on September 3, 2009, shortly after Denise discovered her husband's body and her traumatized son in their pickup at the gate to the Clifton's home.

Gordon and other neighbors had been involved in a dispute with the Cliftons, claiming the gate they put up illegally blocked a public, county road.

While the issue was the subject of a civil suit, police investigators and prosecutors claimed Gordon took matters into his own hands and lay in wait to murder Clifton as he drove up to the gate, at the end of his work day on September 3, 2009.


Gordon faced retrial in Stone County Circuit Court on Tuesday, July 12, because a Fulton County jury deadlocked after a trial in September of 2010.

While 11 jurors supported a verdict of first degree murder, one juror was not convinced the murder was premeditated and favored a manslaughter verdict.

Jury Selection

"Your job is extremely important," said 16th District Prosecuting Attorney Don McSpadden, on July 12, as jury selection began at the county courthouse in Mountain View. "You will be the fact judge in this case."

Unlike Fulton County, where jury selection took 13 hours, because so many residents had heard about the murder case or knew parties involved, only one prospective juror indicated she was aware of the Viola murder case.

An eight-woman, four-man jury was seated in four hours.

Prosecution Case

Prosecutors began presenting their case against Gordon Tuesday, July 13.

As in the first trial, McSpadden, assisted by Fulton County Prosecutor Dwayne Plumlee, called first responders summoned when Clifton's body was discovered, state police who handled the investigation and Clifton's friends and relatives who were at the murder scene or knew of incidents between the Clifton's and Gordon, before and after the disputed gate went up.

Prosecutors closely questioned Denise Clifton and three other witnesses as to where the hunting rifle Joseph Clifton carried in his vehicle was after the murder.

All four witnesses testified the rifle was on the floor of the pickup, wedged between a car seat and the console. Two remembered seeing the rifle on the driver side, while two believed it was on the passenger side.

That testimony was aimed at addressing a police photograph which the defense pointed to repeatedly at the first trial. The photograph showed the rifle on the passenger seat, and was cited by the defense as proof Clifton had pulled the gun on Gordon, forcing Gordon to open fire to save his life.

Prosecutor McSpadden claimed the weapon was moved to the seat, at some point, by one of the many people who were at the murder scene, but there was no doubt the rifle was on the floor of Clifton's vehicle, immediately after the shooting.

Once again, Denise Clifton was the prosecution's main witness.

Clifton described incidents in which she claimed Gordon went out of his way to harass, threaten and intimidate her family.

"Were you afraid of Richard Gordon?" prosecutor Plumlee asked.

"Yes, sir," Clifton replied.

"Was your husband afraid of Richard Gordon?" prosecutor Plumlee asked.

"Yes, sir," Clifton again replied.

Clifton described her rush to leave Batesville, where she was working at a doctor's office, the day of the murder. She said her husband told her by phone to stop and get something to drink. "We are fine and we'll be here," Joe told Denise.

But when Denise drove up the road to her home and saw Joe's pickup truck at their gate, she was alarmed and, when the truck didn't move as she pulled up, she walked up to it.

"I knew something was bad wrong," Clifton testified. "I knew he had Jenkins with him. When I got to the driver's side door, the first thing I saw was a gunshot in his side and he was slumped down and I started hollering."

Having to relive the day of the murder was painful for Clifton, who cried frequently and struggled to find words to describe the horrors of that day, and the run-ins with Gordon, which led up to the shooting.

As defense attorney Froelich questioned her about whether she saw anyone move her husband's rifle at the crime scene, Clifton snapped, "I was doing CPR after I got him (Joe) out of the truck." Sobbing she added, "I didn't even take care of my baby (who was left in the truck). I was worried about him (Joe)."

In a change from the first trial, state police investigator Todd Shaw narrated a video showing the drive from Gordon's road to the Clifton's property, to help jurors better visualize the area.

Prosecutors also played an audio tape of an interview Shaw did with Gordon, the day after the murder. During the interview, Gordon admitted shooting Clifton, and leaving his son in the back of the pickup. While he claimed he shot Clifton in self defense, Gordon supplied no details.

The prosecution's second attempt to convince a jury of Gordon's guilt was completed in one day, as it called 16 witnesses over a six-and-a-half hour period.

Defense Case

Defense attorney Froelich began calling witnesses Thursday, July 14.

Three of Gordon's neighbors described Gordon as a good neighbor and friend. They all testified that they had never had any problems with and, certainly, were not afraid of him. They also denied ever hearing Gordon threaten the Clifton's.

Richard Gordon was the seventh and final defense witness, and he spent about four hours on the stand.

Gordon began by describing spending his youth in Viet Nam, where he was trained to kill enemy soldiers, and where he saw many friends killed or wounded.

He discussed discovering north central Arkansas by bringing a church youth group to the area for youth rallies.

Gordon testified he was a licensed Baptist minister and served for 10 years as a youth pastor in Louisiana, something not brought up at his first trial.

Gordon stated he moved to Big Stone Road in Viola in 2002, where he found peace farming and got along with his neighbors "real well," until the Clifton's moved to a farm on nearby Hidden Woods Trail.

Gordon said the Clifton's immediately took a disliking to him, as he used the road past their house to reach land he leased for cattle.

Gordon testified that he met Denise Clifton when she rudely accused him of intentionally throwing gravel on her and her one-year-old son, when his four wheeler passed hers.

After the Clifton's put the gate across the road Gordon called "C-R (County Road) 382," Gordon testified things went from bad to worse, with Joe Clifton telling him the road past the gate was his private road and, if he saw Gordon on it, he would shoot him. Gordon also claimed Clifton told him he had shot two of his pigs and said he can do anything he wants "because the Sheriff and Deputy Boyd Dailey are real good friends and my uncle is county judge."

Gordon testified he was "scared" of Clifton and went out of his way to avoid him. Gordon said, on the day of September 3, 2009, he visited neighbors and ran errands, including picking up a land plat for the acreage he leased near Clifton's home, because he was planning to buy the land and needed to check the property boundaries.

Gordon testified he later drove his tractor down Clifton's road to check the fences and his cattle on his rented land.

While he said he had not been on the road for months because Clifton threatened him, Gordon said he needed to go near Clifton's gate because the land plat shows a corner marker on the land he wanted to buy was there.

"Tell us when you first saw Joe," Froelich asked.

"I was just coming out of the woods, after looking for the (corner) marker," Gordon replied.

Gordon said Clifton motioned him over to his vehicle, which was at the disputed gate.

"Joe said, 'What in the hell are you doing up here?'" Gordon testified. I said, 'I lease this land. I have a right to be up here.' I was shaking...I was scared."

"Joe said, 'I told you last time, from the mailbox to back yonder...that's a private road," Gordon continued. "You're trespassing and, not only that, you threatened my wife the other day and scared the hell out of her...He reached over and brought the rifle up."

"I figured," Gordon testified, "if he got the rifle out (of the truck window), I was dead. I brought my weapon up. It kind of went blank. I'm pretty sure I shot him. I know I shot him. There was nowhere I could run to."

Gordon told his attorney that, facing being shot, he "reverted back" to his old Army training and, afterward, he was "really upset and shook up" and, for the first time, saw Clifton's son, then two-and-a-half, appear in the backseat.

Gordon said he regrets not calling for help for the boy, but went home and considered shooting himself, then decided to sit on his porch and wait for the police.

Closing Arguments

In closing arguments, prosecutor McFadden's theme to jurors was "use your common sense."

McFadden pointed out Gordon was the only witness to describe Joe Clifton as a threatening person, that Clifton would have had difficulty picking up a rifle and positioning it quickly out his truck window, that Gordon had no reason to be by the Clifton's gate the day of the shooting and that, after the confrontation, he acted like a guilty man, not someone forced to defend himself.

Defense attorney Froelich insisted Gordon's story of acting in self defense was credible. He pointed to the photo of Clifton's rifle on the passenger seat and said, if the rifle was on the floor by the console, there should have been blood on it, because Clifton's blood had run onto the console and down it.

Verdict and Sentencing

The jury deliberated only two hours before returning the verdict of murder in the first degree, rejecting the self defense claim.

The jury then went directly into the sentencing phase of the trial.

"Because of what you did to him (Joseph), you are no longer a threat to society. For that, we can all be thankful," Denise Clifton told Gordon before turning to speak to the jury.

Clifton then made a plea to jurors to insure that Gordon remains behind bars forever.

"Jenkins is the most inquisitive four-year-old in the world. He has a question about everything. I explain that the bad guy is handcuffed and behind bars. He is still afraid someone will let him out. He is constantly asking me. what will happen if they leave the door open and he gets out, will he shoot me?"

Gordon also spoke to the jury. His plea for leniency began with, "I don't agree with your verdict."

"I am not surprised at the verdict," Gordon continued, "because I made a lot of mistakes, and Joe Clifton wound up dead."

Gordon told jurors he would use his life in prison to continue the prison ministry he had started.

"If I spend years in prison, so be it," Gordon said.

The jury gave Gordon plenty of time for his prison ministry.

He was sentenced to life plus 15 years for the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime.

(Reporter's note: While Denise Clifton was referred to in court as "Denise Clifton," she has married Seth Jones and now goes by Denise Clifton-Jones. Clifton-Jones recently gave birth to a baby girl, Dacee. Clifton-Jones said rebuilding a life after a great tragedy is difficult but, the night Gordon was sentenced to life, she "slept like a baby" for the first time since the murder, nearly two years ago.)

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