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State Supremes To Hear Arena Case

Oral arguments set for early 2012

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Oct. 7, 2011

Michael Arena has been in jail since he was 16, for an alleged sexual assault that the victim now says never occurred.
Michael Arena has been in jail since he was 16, for an alleged sexual assault that the victim now says never occurred.
Photo by Jana Birchum

The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to review a lower court decision denying the appeal of 27-year-old Michael Arena, convicted of a sexual assault that no one, not even the alleged victim, now says happened. Arena was convicted in 1999 of sexually abusing his then-7-year-old cousin Stephanie; Stephanie says no abuse ever took place and that her mother, going through a bitter divorce from Michael's uncle, compelled her to lie about the abuse.

At issue, in part, is whether the expert testimony of Williamson County psychologist Fred Willoughby was improperly allowed into evidence during the sentencing hearing for Arena, then 16. Willoughby testified that a psychological examination called the "Abel Assessment" had been used and could accurately determine the sexual preferences of juveniles. Based on the test, Willoughby told the court that he could say that Arena was attracted to young girls and was likely a pedophile who would re-offend if not sent to prison. As it happens, the test has not been shown to be effective, and Willoughby was subsequently sanctioned by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists for his failure to substantiate his in-court opinions.

Neither the trial court nor the 3rd Court of Appeals found cause to grant Arena relief – the error didn't affect the jury's decision to give Arena 20 years, the court opined – prompting his attorney, Clint Broden, to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, the highest court hearing appeals from juvenile criminal cases. Broden believes that to allow such inaccurate and prejudicial testimony to stand could negatively affect hundreds of other cases to come.

The Supremes have set the case for oral argument in Austin on Jan. 10, 2012. For more on the case, see "Criminally Innocent," Nov. 5, 2010.

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