BY MELANIE BUCK & LEANN DILBECK –
Michael Laws, age 29, of Mena was convicted by a jury of his peers last week in Polk County Circuit Court of felony sexual assault of a minor in the 1st degree. He was sentenced by the jury to 10 years probation. Prosecutor Andy Riner recommended to presiding Judge Jerry Ryan that he also impose a permanent no contact order with the victim, who is now 18 years of age, which he did, as well as added to the jury’s recommended sentence that the probation be supervised. Laws will also be required to register as a sex offender.
Laws was accused of engaging in multiple acts of both deviate sexual activity and sexual intercourse with a minor female on several occasions, beginning in 2013 and continuing for more than a year, who was not his spouse, and over whom he had a position of trust or authority, specifically as a church leader at The Crossing Church.
Laws was not a paid staff member at the church. He was a volunteer and when the situation was discovered, he was immediately removed from his position.
The jury heard emotional testimony not only from the victim in this case but a previous victim, within the same age range, who had also had an inappropriate relationship with Laws but he was never charged because the victim in that case was unwilling to testify at that time.
Part of the burden of proof for Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner was to prove that Laws held a leadership role in the church of which he used to gain trust with the victim. In closing arguments, Riner referenced a sermon Laws delivered to the youth prior to his removal titled “Low Garbage Living” as Riner encouraged the jury to make a statement with their verdict of what they will allow in their community and to “put a high cost on low garbage living.” The jury deliberated for just over 10 minutes before returning their unanimous guilty verdict.
Public Defender Shane Etheridge pleaded for his client during the sentencing phase of the trial as Laws, as well as his sister and wife, testified on his behalf. Laws and his sister referenced not having good role models in their childhood. Laws, himself, testified that he didn’t understand that his actions were illegal because the sex was consensual and asked that the jury have mercy while considering their sentencing recommendation.
After initially being arrested twice, Laws fled to Oklahoma before he was apprehended by Jenks, Oklahoma law officials, just outside Tulsa. Because Laws broke the conditions of his bond twice by having contact with the victim, he remained in police custody since early May awaiting his trial.
Failure to adhere to the terms and conditions set forth by the Polk County jury with this guilty verdict, Laws could face anywhere from 6 to 30 years in prison.
Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner said that these types [sex] of cases are always difficult and commended the jury for their attention in listening to uncomfortable testimony. He added that every time a local jury renders a guilty verdict such as this, it speaks volumes about what they will tolerate in their community.