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William Arnold, Jr.

Other Tennessee exonerations
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On June 17, 2011, a grand jury in Davidson County, Tennessee indicted 39-year-old William Arnold Jr. on charges of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old youth that Arnold was mentoring through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program in Nashville.

The indictment did not charge specific dates, but alleged that beginning in 2009 and ending before the end of June in 2010, Arnold assaulted a boy on several occasions when they were together, including in Arnold’s home in Davidson County.

The charges were triggered in November 2010 during a confrontation between the boy, identified as NM, who was then 12 years old, and his mother. NM’s mother, who was vehemently opposed to homosexuality, caught NM having a sexual conversation with a boy from school. She whipped him with a belt and later questioned him about whether different people had touched him inappropriately, naming individuals one by one. When she said the name “William,” NM, nodded and began to cry. NM later testified that his mother got a Bible and he put his hand on it and swore that “William" touched him. Without further conversation about it, NM’s mother called police and said that Arnold had been the abuser.

Before charges were initiated, NM’s mother filed a $3 million lawsuit against Arnold and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

In July 2011, NM revealed to his counselor that he had consensual sexual relations with an older teenager (identified as WCL) at WCL’s home in neighboring Franklin, Tennessee, which is in Williamson County. NM’s mother was dating WCL’s older brother, DL. They would visit DL’s and WCL’s mother’s home in Franklin. NM said that he and WCL, whose first name was “William,” had consensual sex at a number of other locations as well.

Prior to trial, defense lawyers sought a hearing to allow them to present evidence of NM’s sexual conduct with WCL during the same time period that the alleged abuse occurred to show that he had a motive “to lie about the true identity of the person [with] whom he had sexual relations.” The defense contended that when NM said “William,” he was referring to WCL, not Arnold, but NM never retracted his initial accusation against Arnold out of fear of his mother.

The hearing on the motion began on September 4, 2012. WCL’s older brother, DL, testified that he moved in with NM and NM’s mother in March 2009 in Nashville. He said he introduced them to his younger brother, WCL, about a year later. DL said that NM’s mother ultimately told him that an incident of a sexual nature between NM and WCL had occurred. NM made the admission to a counselor he had begun seeing because of the first outcry. The counselor, who was mandated to report abuse, then made a report to police in Franklin, the town in nearby Williamson County where WLC lived.

NM testified at the hearing that after DL began dating his mother and moved in with them, he began a sexual relationship with WCL. He said that this did not occur until March of 2011—several months after he first reported being abused by “William.” His testimony wavered and changed. NM denied that he told the Franklin police department or a forensic interviewer at Our Kids Center that he had anal sex with WCL, even though video recordings of both interviews showed that he had said so. When Arnold’s defense lawyer asked NM if the sexual contact with WCL actually happened in 2010, NM insisted it was in 2011. NM claimed his sexual contact with WCL occurred after he was sexually assaulted by Arnold. NM also denied that he had texted WCL asking WCL to text a photograph of his penis.

The hearing was continued to March 25, 2013, when WCL testified. He admitted that he had told Arnold’s defense attorneys that he met NM in 2009. He said he was “unsure” whether he told the defense attorneys that he had sex with NM five to six years earlier. He said he “possibly” remembered being interviewed on videotape by the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) about his sexual contact with NM. He said he did not recall telling the DCS investigators that the sexual relationship with NM ended before Christmas 2010.

On May 14, 2013, the trial court ruled that the defense could ask NM about the timing of his relationship with WCL. However, if NM said it occurred after he made his first accusation against Arnold, the defense would not be allowed to impeach him with any of the police reports or forensic interviews that suggested the relationship with WCL was earlier, during the time frame alleged in the indictment against Arnold.

Arnold went to trial in Davidson County Criminal Court on July 8, 2013. He was charged with three counts of aggravated sexual battery and three counts of rape of a child.

NM testified that he met Arnold in 2007 through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program at the Boys and Girls Club where NM attended after school camp and summer camp. Eventually in 2009, Arnold began mentoring him offsite, NM said, and the sexual assaults began. He said they occurred twice in Arnold’s car and other times in Arnold’s home.

During cross-examination, he admitted that he had a sexual relationship with WCL, but said that it occurred in 2011, after he made the allegation against Arnold.

Arnold testified and denied that he had sexually abused the victim. He said he had an undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee in Sociology with a minor in Broadcast. He also had a Masters and Doctorate from Tennessee State University. He told the jury he was employed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Arnold said he got involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program at the recommendation of a fraternity brother. He said that when he started the process to become a mentor, he was employed by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission as the Director of Interagency Programs and Academic Grants.

He said he had been assigned as the victim’s mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program in the fall of 2007. Arnold said he had met with NM weekly at the Boys and Girls Club during the 2007-08 school year but did not see NM again until January 2009 when Arnold became a community-based mentor for NM and began mentoring him away from the Boys and Girls Club.

Arnold said that in 2009, he and his wife were chosen to adopt a baby that was due in October. This led to a decrease in the frequency of his visits with NM. Arnold said he didn’t see NM in February of 2010 because “[h]e broke his arm.” In March, Arnold said he and his wife began having “pretty extreme” marital problems. They both had affairs and “couldn’t come to any agreements on staying together.” He said he didn’t bring NM to his home after February because he “didn’t want him to see [the couple] in such a tense environment.”

Arnold said he moved out of the house on May 27, 2010, and he and his wife filed for divorce. It was agreed to that his wife would adopt the child. He said he did not see NM again until the early summer of 2010 when he took NM to a golf program designed to teach “moral conduct through golf.” He said he took NM weekly, with NM’s mother picking him up afterward until June 29, 2010. And that was the last time he saw NM.

Several witnesses—including his father, William Edward Arnold, Sr., and Aaron Powell, a friend and fraternity brother—testified to Arnold’s good character.

At the close of the evidence, the trial court granted a defense motion for acquittal on two of the aggravated sexual battery charges that were alleged to have taken place in Arnold’s car. The court found that those events were “physically impossible.”

On July 12, 2013, the jury convicted Arnold of one count of aggravated sexual battery and three counts of rape of a child. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Arnold filed an appeal in January 2014. In October 2014, while the appeal was pending, his lawyers filed a petition for a writ of error coram nobis seeking a new trial based on evidence that had emerged in a civil lawsuit that NM’s mother had filed against Arnold and the Boys and Girls Club in 2011. Depositions in the lawsuit had been put on hold until after Arnold’s trial. But after the conviction, NM was deposed under oath and testified that his relationship with WCL had begun before he made the allegation against Arnold. The petition claimed that this recantation of his trial testimony supported the defense claim that NM had falsely accused Arnold to protect WCL because NM hoped to re-establish the consensual relationship with WCL, which had ended about the same time that NM falsely accused Arnold.

The petition was denied without a hearing. In January 2018, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Arnold’s convictions on direct appeal. Arnold then filed petitions for post-conviction relief alleging numerous claims that his trial defense lawyers had provided an inadequate legal defense and a successor petition for a writ of error coram nobis. These claims included failing to call WCL as a witness at the trial, as well as the Franklin police detective who investigated the allegation that WCL and NM had sexual contact when NM was 12. The petition also alleged that counsel was ineffective for failing to renew the request to introduce NM’s prior sexual acts with WCL, and failing to object to the prosecutor’s improper comments during closing argument.

At a hearing on the petitions in February 2018, attorney Gary Kellar testified that he was defending Arnold in the civil lawsuit brought by NM and NM’s mother and that he took both of their depositions. Kellar said that NM admitted that he met WCL in the summer of 2009 or 2010, which contradicted NM’s trial testimony that he met WCL in 2011. In addition, NM’s mother said in her deposition that NM met WCL in August 2009.

Kellar also testified that in response to questions, NM said that Arnold had chest hair and did not have any tattoos. However, Arnold has never had chest hair and had several tattoos on his arms and legs.

Kellar said he subpoenaed cell phone records for the mobile phones belonging to NM and WCL, but learned the records had been destroyed pursuant to normal business practices.

Dr. Barbara Allen Ziv, an expert in forensic psychiatry, testified that she performed an evaluation of NM in August 2017 at the request of an attorney for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Based on her interview and review of the trial record, she concluded that NM had not been sexually assaulted by Arnold. Ziv testified that while none of the things NM told her about Arnold matched NM’s allegations, NM’s account of his sexual interaction with WCL, the timing of the breakup with WCL in November 2010 and NM’s “tearful confession” that he had sex with WCL did match NM’s allegations of sexual abuse by Arnold.

Ziv said that when she attempted to discuss Arnold, NM said, “I wish this hadn’t happened” and “I feel guilty.”

Ziv also testified that most significantly, NM had “changing stories” regarding Arnold. She said that NM never told “the same story twice,” which was “the hallmark of a non-credible witness.”

She also said, “[A]s somebody who has reviewed over a thousand convicted sex offenders…I can say that [Arnold’s] behavior in no way, shape or form conforms to the patterns of behavior of a child molester or a pedophile, even in [NM’s] accounting.”

At a hearing in March 2018, Arnold’s defense attorney, Patrick McNally, called Donald Dawson, the former director of the Tennessee Post-Conviction Defender’s Office, to testify as an expert relating to the defense claim of prosecutorial misconduct during the closing arguments of Arnold’s trial. Dawson said there were several instances of misconduct: the prosecutor, during her argument, sat in the witness chair and mocked Arnold’s testimony, described Arnold as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, improperly bolstered NM’s testimony by saying he had been “honest,” and urged the jury to convict Arnold to help NM heal from the experience. In addition, the prosecution told the jury that there was no other way that NM knew about sexual matters other than from sex with Arnold, when in fact the prosecution knew there was evidence (not presented at the trial) that NM had engaged in sexual acts with WCL.

Dawson said the defense attorney’s failure to object to the closing arguments or ask for a mistrial had denied Arnold’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

In March 2018, the trial court denied Arnold’s petitions. Arnold filed an appeal and also an application for review with the Davidson County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit.

In February 2020, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the denial of the post-conviction petition and granted Arnold a new trial. The court ruled that Arnold’s trial defense attorneys had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to object to the prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments. The court characterized the prosecution arguments variously as “exceedingly improper,” “overwhelmingly inflammatory,” and “knowingly false.”

The appeals court wrote that the prosecutors and defense counsel knew of the sexual relations between NM and WCL before the trial began. The appeals court said that the defense attorneys were deficient for failing to renew their motion to allow them to confront NM during cross-examination when he said his contact with WCL did not occur until 2011. Additionally, the appeals court held the trial defense attorneys also were deficient for failing to use the evidence to rebut the prosecutor’s arguments that the only way a boy as young as NM would know the details of sexual acts was from the incidents with Arnold.

This evidence included WCL’s interview with a Franklin County detective and a child welfare worker. During the interview, WCL said his relationship with NM occurred prior to his senior year and that he graduated in 2011, indicating that the sexual contact occurred prior to the fall of 2010. WCL said he subsequently ended the contact because he wanted to date other males. WCL said that NM texted him asking for a photograph of his penis—contradicting NM’s denial of having done so.

In addition, the evidence showed that the Franklin police detective investigating that case later wrote a memo to a prosecutor saying that WCL’s recollection of the time frame was “more reliable” than NM’s version. Ultimately, according to the detective’s memo, a case against WCL was not pursued because NM’s mother did not want to prosecute and the prosecutor declined to pursue the case by charging WCL as an adult.

After the Court of Criminal appeals vacated Arnold’s conviction, the Davidson County District Attorney and McNally entered an agreed order on April 16, 2020, releasing Arnold on a no-cash bond pending a possible retrial.

During the review of Arnold’s case by the Conviction Review Unit, NM and his mother were interviewed. Assistant District Attorney Robert Jones, the sole member of the unit, also reached out to law enforcement officials in Williamson and Davidson Counties. Ultimately, he concluded, “Based on that information, I no longer have confidence in the conviction of Mr. Arnold and his guilt.”

On June 29, 2020, the District Attorney’s Office told Criminal Court Presiding Judge Joe P. Binkley that it was dismissing the case.

After the hearing, Arnold said, “To all those people who are still fighting, who are still wrongfully convicted, it can work. I’m thankful that it worked for me, and I hope that it can work for others.” He added, “It’s hard to put my faith in a system that screwed me over from the front end. To hope and to pray that system would release me was a hard thing to do.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/7/2020
Last Updated: 9/7/2020
State:Tennessee
County:Davidson
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:Child Sex Abuse
Reported Crime Date:2010
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:25 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No