Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Falsely accused of sexual assault as a teen, Michael Arena is free but not exonerated
"I'm trying to be pro-social," says Michael Arena, the Bell County native who spent 12 years in prison for a crime that never happened. "A productive member of society."
Arena explains himself one morning at a coffee shop in Georgetown, where we sit at a corner table with his girlfriend, Sharon Larson. He's big – muscly, cut, tanned, with soft and weary eyes. He wears blue jeans, a black hat, brown boots, and a white tank top. On his arms and upper body are an array of blue tattoos.
"A lot of the mentality I had when I was locked up still bugs me. It's like a voice in my head; the old me. I grew up there. I was 16. That part of me is still a part of me. But I'm not a hothead anymore. Haven't been in a fight since I was out. I'm trying to better myself. On Monday, I gotta go to Waco and see about going to ITT."
The 32-year-old Arena is now three years removed from the 12 years he spent with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In late 1999, he and his brother John were found guilty and sentenced to prison for sexually abusing his younger cousin, Stephanie, when she was 7. John, who confessed to the crime during questioning, was given seven years and a mandate that he register for life as a sex offender after his release. Michael, 16 years old when he went to trial, was found guilty and sent away for 20.
Michael never confessed to the crime – because no sexual abuse of his cousin ever happened. The real story would be revealed years later when Stephanie admitted to lying (she believed) in order to help her mother LaVonna as she navigated an ugly divorce from the Arena brothers' uncle. Stephanie has recanted her damning testimony multiple times over the last decade and more, saying that at 7 years old she barely knew what sexual abuse was. In 2010, when she was 21, she told the Chronicle that she only knew that her mother, who's "kind of mentally unstable," "told me to say that my cousins had molested me, otherwise she would go to jail."
The recantation eventually afforded Michael a second hearing, where, in Aug. 2012, his case was tossed and he was released on time served. (John, released in 2005, was left with his initial sentence.) Michael was picked up at the Dolph Briscoe Unit in South Texas and brought back to his family's hometown of Harker Heights. There, he was told to step back into society and get a job and go on living. Never mind that he'd been in prison so long that his town had grown to the point that he could not navigate it, and small things like his father's iPhone (introduced in 2007, more than two generations of phones beyond the clunky car phones Arena recognized) would trip him up to the point that it became difficult to communicate.
"I'm kind of ignoring the whole presidential thing," he says. "I don't even get into that."
Arena has had trouble holding jobs. He was a bouncer immediately after his release, and worked in oil fields in Texas and New Mexico. But that work all came through friends; he's sent in hundreds of applications to no avail. "The work history," he explains. "I can't put down what I did [for work while incarcerated] because they'll ask where, and I'll have to say it happened in prison. I worked in a furniture factory. I worked in maintenance. I've done several jobs, but I can't put it down. They'll ask where, and who's your employer. 'Briscoe Prison.'"
Just as tough is explaining his past to new acquaintances. "If I meet somebody new, they're like 'Oh, where'd you get those tattoos?'" he says. "Everywhere I go, I have to explain my life." The one person he's met who already knew is Larson. She saw the 20/20 special on the Arena brothers that aired in 2006. "I remembered his name," she says. "I was the one who went to him and said that I remembered. My heart just broke for him. I wanted to drive over and just hug him."
He harbors hope for his exoneration but recognizes that it may prove too tough. "We're sort of at a standstill," he says, noting the difficulty of presenting new evidence to a case that's built around something that never happened. His brother's attorney, Tony Haughton, a member of the Texas Innocence Project, told the Chronicle that he's been working on getting a recantation from the brothers' former aunt, and that such a statement would exonerate John (thus allowing him to remove his name from any sex offender registry) and therefore lead to Michael's exoneration. He said he's visited LaVonna twice at her home in Iowa and "we're trying to see what we can do along these lines," but he's yet to get a confession, and they're not sure how that will happen.
In the meantime, Arena's focused on shedding the party lifestyle and turning himself from a castoff into a family man. He and Larson now live together in Temple with Larson's four children. Together, they're planning a move to Copperas Cove. It hasn't been entirely easy – one of Larson's acquaintances called child protective services when they learned of Arena's past – but they have a good thing going. "It's a different experience, but it's better than what it was," says Arena. "I don't have to worry about always being around drunk people always doing crazy things. It's dealing with kids, cleaning the house. We've only been dating for a month, but we have an understanding."
Larson calls it a connection.