Memphis man seeks exoneration after spending nearly 7 years in prison, having conviction overturned

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis man was set free after spending almost seven years in prison, but the battle to clear his name is just beginning.

William Arnold was the epitome of success: nice job, three degrees, active in the community. 

“I was also involved in a couple of boards in the city,” Arnold said. “I was, at the time, I was president, the alumni chapter of my college fraternity active in my Masonic Lodge, volunteering, just doing the things that, you know, if you were raised to be a servant, that you were doing.”

In the Fall of 2009, just months after he started mentoring a 9-year-old boy while living in Middle Tennessee, he got a call from the child’s mother. Her son had been acting out sexually.

“She said, well, he claims this, this and this,” Arnold said. “And I said, ‘No, that’s that’s not true.’ And if you want, we can go and talk to any, any judge, any lawyer, any police that you want to. So, she tells me, ‘I don’t want any police involved.’ And I thought that was odd.”

The police did get involved. The boy recounted graphic sexual details to authorities about William Arnold.  It turns out there was another “William” in his life, a 17-year-old family friend who confessed to having a sexual relationship with the child.

The accuser also later admitted the relationship, but a pre-trial ruling kept the jury from hearing that evidence. After a five-day trial they convicted and sentenced William Arnold, the mentor, to serve 100% of 25 years in prison for child rape.

“I’m still trying to figure out how the only evidence, if you would have against me, was the testimony of my accuser,” Arnold said.

Arnold claims the accuser’s mother was after money, not the truth. He spent 6 years fighting for his freedom from one court to another. 

His case reached the Tennessee Court of Appeals last February and they overturned his conviction. Judges cited prosecutors overstepped their bounds, swaying jurors against Arnold. 

A conviction review board in the Nashville DA’S Office went a step further, dismissing all charges and saying the evidence just wasn’t there to prosecute again.

The accuser’s mother, Shanell Bowen, told WREG Arnold is out of prison on a technicality not because he’s innocent. Her son, who we won’t name is now in his early 20’s and lives out of state, but she’s still here fighting.

“Yeah, I’m keeping it in the community, and I will be keeping it in the public, because, if I can save another mother from having to sit in my chair, cry like I cry, console my son the way, I have to, I’m going to do it 24 hours, seven days a week, and I’ll never get tired,” Bowen said.

She says her son is telling the truth about Arnold and though there was another William in his life, her son knew the difference. They now have a $6-million civil lawsuit against Arnold and Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

“That’s blood money. Does that make sense, like when I say it’s blood money?” Bowen said. “I’m going to do it because that’s, the only way it’s going to make people like Big Brothers and Big Sisters realize that you cannot get away with this.”

Arnold is back here in his hometown of Memphis, gearing up for this lawsuit and the opportunity to clear his name forever. He’s seeking exoneration, which he hopes leads the state to compensate him financially for the years he lost in prison.

“It’s not something that’s really popular in the state of Tennessee is sort of saying, ‘Hey, we made a mistake, we messed up and we’re gonna make it right.’ So that’s the process that I’m currently going through right now,” Arnold said.

Only 23 people in Tennessee have been exonerated, according to the Tennessee Innocence Project. Only three former inmates have ever been successful recovering any kind of money.  If Bowen gets her way, Arnold won’t be one of them.

“If he’s exonerated, I feel that he will do this again to other children,” Bowen said. “It gives him the premise to be around other children, and I’m not only fighting for my child, but I’m fighting for other children out there that might not have someone to speak for them.”

WREG asked Arnold about mentoring again. He admits mentors were important in his life but says he’s done after this experience.

His focus now is his exoneration, advocating for the inmates he left behind and turning journals he wrote in prison into a book.

“I mean, that’s a part of I want people to read and I want them to understand, because one thing about this that I firmly believe is that it can happen to anybody,” Arnold said. “It can happen to anybody; somebody can make up a story. And just like that, you’re involved in a criminal justice system.”

The trial is set for August on that civil lawsuit. Two weeks ago, we contacted Big Brothers, Big Sisters. They declined to comment because of the pending litigation involves them.

Arnold filed official papers with the parole board to begin the exoneration process two weeks ago.

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