Arena Gets Time Served

After Supreme Court ruling, won't have to register as sex offender

Arena Gets Time Served

Just over a month after he was released from prison – after spending nearly 13 years behind bars for a crime that even the alleged victim says never happened – Michael Arena and his lawyer negotiated a disposition in his case that would credit him for the time he served behind bars and would waive his having to register for life as a sex offender.

As teens, Arena and his brother, John, were each accused of sexually assaulting their then-seven-year-old cousin, Stephanie. Although she initially went along with the story Stephanie soon recanted and steadfastly maintains that no crime ever occurred. Rather, she asserts that the plot against her cousins was devised by her mother, LaVonna, who at the time was going through a bitter divorce from Stephanie's father, who is uncle to the Arena boys, and who had left the state with Stephanie and her brother in defiance of a court order. Claiming sexual abuse was a way for her mother to avoid being sent to jail, Stephanie says she was told. Nonetheless, the Arena boys were sent to prison; John spent seven years behind bars while Michael served just under 13 of a 20-year sentence.

After years of appeals, the Texas Supreme Court in May ruled that Michael should be given a new sentencing hearing, after finding that Williamson County psychologist Frederick Willoughby had given false testimony during Michael's trial, leading jurors to believe that he had determined that the teen, 14 at the time of the alleged crime, is a pedophile and would be a danger to society if given probation. Although the state argued on appeal that Willoughby's testimony had no impact, it had argued to jurors that Michael would be a threat. Indeed, as it turned out, the "test" Willoughby used to come to his conclusion had not been scientifically verified for use on teens, although Willoughby testified that it was a scientifically sound test. (Willoughby was disciplined in 2003, in part for his "failure to substantiate forensic opinions," according to a document from the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists.) The Supremes sided with Arena, and kicked the case back to Bell County for a new punishment hearing.

That won't happen, however, now that the state has agreed to dispose of the case by crediting Michael Arena with time served. Importantly, the state has also agreed to recommend that Arena not be required to register as a sex offender – a circumstance that Mary Sue Molnar, founder of Texas Voices, a statewide advocacy group for sex offenders and their families that seeks to restore balance and rationality to the way Texas pursues and punishes sex-related offenses, the fact that Michael will be spared registration is a huge victory. "Being registered is one of the most horrible lifetime punishments you can get," she says. "I think its a great first step and probably just the icing on the cake."

Arena has agreed not to appeal the disposition, but can still pursue exoneration. Though that may be tough, unless new evidence comes to light, says his attorney Clint Broden. Still, Molnar says that Michael could still be an advocate for the falsely accused. "He can still pursue exoneration; he can still profess his innocence and can still get the word out about the wrongly accused. He can still work for change," she says. "I think that's a great outcome and I hope that he will continue to speak out. All kinds of people have been falsely accused [of sex offenses and] are desperate for someone to speak out."

Find more on the story of the Arena brothers here. And you can find more on the Supreme Court's ruling in Michael's case here.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Legislature, Michael Arena, John Arena, Stephanie Arena, Clint Broden, Frederick Willoughby, Abel Assessment, sex offenders, courts, wrongful conviction, Texas Supreme Court, sex offender registry

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