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`Miracle' rescinded by appeal

A Georgia judge voids a 10-year term in a teen sex case, but the state files an objection, so the offender isn't freed.

June 12, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — For Genarlow Wilson's mother, it was a "miracle" -- a judge had voided her son's 10-year prison sentence for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. She jumped up and down. She told reporters she couldn't wait to fuss over him, looked forward to cooking soul food for him.

Barely an hour later, Juannessa Bennett was fighting tears as the news grew more complicated: Georgia's attorney general had appealed the ruling that had been Wilson's ticket to freedom.

Over the course of the day, she learned that her 21-year-old son may have to wait behind bars until the state Supreme Court settles the matter -- unless, in the interim, his lawyer can win his release on bond.

Bennett and the rest of Georgia were plunged once more into her son's unsavory drama, one that has sparked a graphic debate about teenage sexual mores and the laws meant to protect minors in this socially conservative state.

Over the last two years, the Wilson case has attracted wide attention: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declared he would boycott Georgia until Wilson is free; former President Carter wrote a letter supporting Wilson to the Georgia attorney general; and more than 120,000 people have signed an online petition calling for his release.

A high school football star and honor student, Wilson received oral sex from a 15-year-old girl at a 2003 New Year's Eve party. Under Georgia law at the time, the encounter, although consensual, constituted "aggravated child molestation". The charge was "aggravated" because Georgia law mandated a more severe penalty for oral sex than for intercourse.

In 2005, Wilson was sentenced to prison and a lifetime on Georgia's sex offender registry.

The next year, Georgia legislators revised the law to make most consensual sex between teenagers a misdemeanor rather than a felony. They rejected a bid to make the new law retroactive, though, and later that year the state Supreme Court rejected Wilson's motion for an appeal of that decision. This year, a bill that would have allowed judges to review sentences meted out under the old law stalled in the Georgia Senate.

Wilson's attorney, B.J. Bernstein, spoke emotionally as she told the media of the latest setback. On her right cheek was a lipstick smudge, the imprint of an earlier celebratory kiss.

"It is extremely, extremely disturbing that the attorney general would take this action now," she said. "I don't know what message he's trying to send.... I don't know who's pulling the strings here. I don't understand why smarter heads can't prevail."

The initial good news for Wilson came in a written ruling faxed to Bernstein's office just before noon. In it, Douglas County Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Wilson voided the 10-year sentence and amended the conviction to a misdemeanor of aggravated child molestation with a 12-month term, plus credit for time served. He would have been released without having to register as a sex offender.

"The fact that Genarlow Wilson has spent two years in prison for what is now classified as a misdemeanor, and without assistance from this court will spend eight more years in prison, is a grave miscarriage of justice," the judge wrote.

The judge also criticized Georgia legislators for failing to quickly change the law after the state Supreme Court suggested that it do so to "clarify" which sex crimes would carry a 10-year minimum sentence. The court's suggestion came in a ruling that overturned the conviction of Marcus Dixon, another young football player who had been charged with aggravated statutory rape.

Less than an hour after Judge Wilson's ruling, Georgia Atty. Gen. Thurbert Baker filed his notice of appeal to "resolve clearly erroneous legal issues created by the order."

In a statement, Baker's office said that the judge had "absolutely no authority to reduce or modify the judgment of the trial court."

A spokesman for Baker's office was not available to discuss that opinion further Monday afternoon, but the statement said that Baker would seek an expedited ruling from the state Supreme Court.

Wilson and five other males charged in the case are black. His case has been taken up by civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Yet the racial dimensions of the case are complex. For example, Douglas County Dist. Atty. David McDade, whose office prosecuted Wilson, has repeatedly noted that he brought the case on behalf of two African American girls.

More than half of the nearly 190 people in Georgia prisons sentenced for aggravated child molestation when they were younger than 21 are white, according to state Department of Corrections statistics.

Moreover, Baker -- appointed attorney general by Democratic Gov. Zell Miller in 1997 and then elected in 1998 -- is an African American who attends Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor.

On Monday, Baker's preacher admitted he was "flabbergasted" by the attorney general's decision.

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