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Saturday, October 27, 2007
Justice for Genarlow
The Georgia teen sentenced to a decade behind bars for a consensual sex act with a girl two years younger, is finally freed after the Georgia Supreme Court on Friday ruled that his sentence was grossly unfair, constituting cruel and unusual punishment. Thank God. This case was an embarrassment to the State of Georgia, and to the country. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
case, which sparked protest marches and demonstrations in Douglasville, where Wilson was prosecuted. Douglas County prosecutors, meanwhile, have vehemently denied race played a role, noting all the defendants and victims in the case are black.

The case stems from a drug- and alcohol-fueled New Year's Eve party Wilson attended at a Douglasville hotel in 2003. Wilson was charged with raping a 17-year-old girl at the party, but was acquitted. He was ultimately found guilty of felony aggravated child molestation for receiving oral sex from the 15-year-old girl, a crime that carried a minimum 10-year prison sentence under state law at the time.

Four other male youths at the party pleaded guilty to child molestation of the 15-year-old and sexual battery of the 17-year-old. A fifth pleaded guilty to false imprisonment. Their party was captured on a profanity-laden and sexually graphic video filmed by one of the male youths.

Since Wilson's conviction, the former Republican state lawmaker who authored the state Child Protection Act in 1995 has repeatedly insisted it was never his intent to lock up teenagers involved in consensual sex acts. Last year, the Legislature changed the law to make similar acts a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in prison.

The Supreme Court noted that legal change in the 48-page opinion it issued in Wilson's case Friday morning: "For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of ten years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," wrote Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who sided with the majority in the court's 4-3 decision in favor of freeing Wilson.

In ruling Friday, the Supreme Court upheld the June 11 decision of Monroe County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson, who ordered Wilson freed from prison. Judge Wilson, no relation to Genarlow Wilson, also ordered his felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor. But the Supreme Court said the judge erred in resentencing Wilson "for a misdemeanor crime that didn't exist when the conduct in question occurred." The court said Judge Wilson should instead set aside Wilson's sentence altogether. Judge Wilson did not respond to a message left at his office Friday.

Veda Cannon, the mother of the 15-year-old girl in Wilson's case, declined to comment. But in an interview in June, Cannon said Wilson should never have been criminally charged and imprisoned for receiving oral sex from her daughter. Cannon said the sex between her daughter, Wilson and the four other teens was consensual and regrets she didn't ask prosecutors not to charge them. Critics have pointed out, however, that the age of consent in Georgia is 16.
Good news for Genarlow and his family, but as the AJC points out in an article today, the Georgia legislature still has some work to do:
because he felt that he'd never be free if he were on the sex offender registry. "I just don't feel I'm a sexual predator," he said.

Those sweeping limits have stranded other young offenders with virtually no place to go. Also convicted at age 17 of having oral sex with a 15 -year-old, Jeffery York, 23, of Polk County has resorted to sleeping in a camper van in the woods to comply with the registry. When she was 17, Wendy Whitaker, 28, of Harlem had oral sex with a teen about to turn 16; her sodomy conviction landed her on the registry and forced her and her husband to move twice already.

Now that the Supreme Court has issued a common-sense ruling that sex between teens is not the equivalent of adults preying on children, it's the Legislature's turn to act on reason. Lawmakers must amend the sex offender registry law so that it distinguishes between two immature high school kids hooking up at a party to a pedophile molesting the toddler next door.

Teens convicted of consensual sex acts are not a risk to society, a fact that the General Assembly conceded when it changed the law under which Wilson went to prison. In February 2005, a Douglas County jury convicted Wilson of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex with a classmate about two years younger than him. The conviction hinged on one fact: the two-year age gap.

The gap allowed prosecutors to charge Wilson with aggravated child molestation, which, by a strange twist in Georgia law, carried a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence that could not be commuted by the parole board or the governor.

A year after Wilson's conviction, the Legislature admitted the unfairness of criminalizing sexual behavior between two consenting high school students and rewrote the law so that similar behavior is now a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than 12 months in jail. Yet, the Legislature did nothing to help the teens tripped up by the old law.

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