Arena Will Not Have To Register as a Sex Offender

Lawyers strike a disposition a month after Michael Arena was released from prison

John Arena holds a photo of his brother Michael
John Arena holds a photo of his brother Michael (Photo by Jana Birchum)

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 now says never happened – Michael Arena and his lawyer, Clint Broden, negotiated a disposition in his case that would credit him for the time he served behind bars and waive his having to register as a sex offender for life.

As teens, Arena and his brother, John, were accused of sexually assaulting their then-7-year-old cousin, Stephanie. But Steph­anie soon recanted and steadfastly maintains that no crime ever occurred, but that a plot against her cousins was devised by her mother, LaVonna, who at the time was going through a bitter divorce. 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 over half of his 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. That hearing 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 also agreed to recommend that Arena not be required to register as a sex offender – a huge victory, according to Mary Sue Molnar, founder of Texas Voices, a statewide advocacy group for sex offenders and their families. "Being registered is one of the most horrible lifetime punishments you can get," she says. "I think it's a great first step and probably just the icing on the cake."

Michael has agreed not to appeal the disposition but can still pursue exoneration, though that may be tough, unless new evidence comes to light, says Broden. Still, Molnar says 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," she says. "He can still work for change."

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