The Austin Chronicle

One Last Visit for Mother and Son?

By Jordan Smith, July 15, 2011, News

There's no way to sugarcoat it: Betty Arena – the woman who, with her husband, Robert, has been trying for years to clear her sons' names of a sexual assault that even the victim says never happened – is dying, and soon. She has cancer that started in her lungs and has since spread. And now the most pressing question is: Will she be able to see her son Michael Arena, still incarcerated with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, before her passing?

Right now, it appears unlikely. "The way it's looking, I don't think he'll get to see his mother again," Robert Arena said last week. "I don't know how much more of this I can bear."

John and Michael Arena were 15 and 14, respectively, when they allegedly sexually abused their cousin Stephanie, who was just 7 years old at the time. Stephanie testified against Michael Arena at trial two years later to say the abuse had happened, but just two years after that, she completely recanted that testimony. Now 21, Stephanie has consistently maintained to anyone and everyone who would listen that no abuse ever took place. Instead, she insists that her mother, LaVonna, told her to say she'd been abused – if the young girl had refused, Stephanie told the Chronicle, she believed her mother would be sent to jail.

The allegations were made in the middle of a nasty divorce between LaVonna and her then-husband, Stephan Arena, Stephanie's father and uncle of John and Michael. As the divorce was pending, LaVonna absconded with Stephanie to Florida, though she'd been told by the court not to leave the state. LaVonna was afraid she'd be jailed, family and supporters say, and convinced Stephanie to accuse her cousins of molestation in order to explain her flight.

The courts, however, have paid scant attention to Stephanie's many and vociferous protestations that her cousins are innocent. "I'm not going to give up, and neither is my family, until [the courts] finally see it my way," she said last year. John Arena is out of prison now, and the Innocence Project at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law has told the family it will be taking up his case. Michael Arena, however, remains incarcerated; he has been denied parole because he has refused to admit guilt. Late last year, his lawyer, Clinton Broden, filed a petition to have the Texas Supreme Court review the case; at press time, that request was still pending.

Unless Michael Arena is granted relief by the Texas Supremes, he will likely be incarcerated until 2019 – meaning his chances of visiting with his mother one last time before her death are extremely unlikely, unless the Texas Department of Criminal Justice grants a request from the family to have him moved from the unit in Dilley, Texas, where he is currently housed, to a facility closer to his parents' Bell County home. Even then, it is unclear whether she would be able to travel to see her son. Michael Arena is not eligible for an emergency furlough, according to TDCJ, because of the nature of his offense. Inmates convicted of certain crimes – including aggravated sexual assault of a child, the charge against Michael Arena – are ineligible for any release, even in the case of family emergencies or funerals. The family has nonetheless filed both for a temporary transfer and a furlough.

"The support and care of [Betty Arena] by her family members are essential in her care," Dr. Robin Dauterive wrote in a short letter to TDCJ in support of the family's bid to have Michael Arena transferred to a unit in Gatesville. "Please take this under consideration when determining any conditions or constraints affecting her family members during this difficult time."

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