Michael Arena, almost 13 years into a 20-year prison sentence for molesting a young cousin who later said the incident never happened, was released from prison Friday evening.Arena has been freed, but not necessarily declared innocent:
The Texas Supreme Court threw out Arena's sentence last month, ruling that a prosecution witness provided damaging false testimony during his 1999 trial — labeling Arena a pedophile based on a misused psychological test with a 35 percent error rate.
Friday morning, state District Judge Gordon Adams ordered prison officials to release Arena "forthwith pending a new (sentencing) hearing" in Bell County.
At 5:25 p.m., Arena — a mesh bag stuffed with belongings in each hand — walked out of his Dilley-area prison and into a prolonged embrace with his father, Robert Arena, freshly arrived after a giddy 220-mile drive from his Harker Heights home.
Stephanie Arena, the cousin who accused Arena of molesting her as a 7-year-old, is prepared to testify in Arena's favor and has submitted sworn affidavits saying she lied about being sexually assaulted at the urging of her mother, who was embroiled in a bitter custody battle.
In addition, prosecutors cannot present testimony from psychologist Fred Willoughby, who in 1999 classified Arena as a pedophile based on a test that required the teen to click through images of swimsuit-clad people of various ages while the computer secretly measured how long he viewed each photo.
While testifying at Arena's trial, Willoughby overstated the test's 65 percent accuracy rate and improperly testified that a Brigham Young University study certified its accuracy. Instead, the study raised serious questions about the test, saying its ability to identify pedophiles was no better than chance.
The Supreme Court's May 18 ruling, however, rejected Arena's request to be declared innocent of aggravated sexual assault.
The Supreme Court said it could not credit Stephanie Arena's version of events because a Bell County judge determined that her recantation lacked credibility, finding that it was apparently the result of pressure by Michael Arena's family. The Supreme Court typically defers to lower courts on such judgments.
That outcome muted Friday's celebration of Arena's freedom.
"Unfortunately, despite mountains of evidence that the charges against him were not true, the court refused to find him actually innocent," defense lawyer Clint Broden said. "We are happy that Michael has won his freedom but sad that he has been deprived of 13 years of his life and that the truth has been suppressed."What's important here from Grits' perspective is the court overturning the conviction in part because of the invalidity of the (supposedly) scientific assessment. How often has the same "Abel Assessment" been used in other cases and have they been vetted to ensure there was other, sufficient supporting evidence to justify the charges? Since these assessment functions aren't performed at accredited crime labs, they don't fall under the jurisdiction of the Forensic Science Commission, but there needs to be that sort of big-picture review that the FSC commissioned for arson cases regarding the science behind the Abel Assessment and whether it's improperly influenced the outcomes of other cases.
See prior, related Grits posts: