FORSYTH, GA. — Genarlow Wilson -- the young man imprisoned for committing a consensual sex act who became, for many, an example of an inequitable criminal justice system -- was released from prison Friday after his conviction was overturned by Georgia's Supreme Court.
In 2005, Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. He was sentenced to 10 years without parole, the mandatory minimum under Georgia law at the time.
But the state's high court, in a 4-3 decision, found that the sentence amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment."
And on Friday afternoon, Wilson, now 21, a former high school honor student and football star, walked free from the Al Burruss Correctional Training Center after 32 months behind bars. He was calm, soft-spoken and relieved.
"I'm finally happy to see we've got justice," Wilson said at a news conference outside the prison. "It's just a whole new beginning. I've got fresh breath, a new life."
Wilson was joined by his 9-year-old sister, Jiaya; his attorney, B.J. Bernstein; and his mother, Juannessa Bennett. He told reporters he planned to attend college and pursue a degree in sociology.
"I know he learned a lot of lessons," his mother said. "A lot of people gained from this. It won't happen to another teenager."
Wilson is African American and, like the recent case of six black youths charged in a beating in Jena, La., his ordeal became a celebrated cause for civil rights activists and others who say local justice systems still discriminate against people of color.
On Friday, Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele said Wilson "most definitely" received unfair treatment because he is black. "There are many, many more Genarlow Wilson cases before us in society throughout this country," he said.
Wilson's case also highlighted the increasingly strict sex-offender laws that have become common in Georgia and other states. If his conviction had been upheld, Wilson would have had to register as a sex offender upon his release. Georgia law would have prevented him from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, day-care centers, parks, churches, swimming pools or school bus stops.
A number of young Georgia residents who have been convicted of similar crimes are living under these restrictions, which they say are unbearable. They have challenged the law in federal court.
Wilson's release gave hope to critics of such laws that legislators across the country will be more careful about enacting sex-crime laws.
"We may be seeing at least a pause before politicians rush in to exploit sexual abuse for political gain," said Lisa Kung, director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which is representing Georgia's sex offenders in the federal lawsuit.
At the news conference, attorney Bernstein said teens and parents were often unaware that sex laws varied from state to state.
"This is an awakening of parents everywhere," she said. "Have a conversation with your teenager."
She added: "Dangerous sex predators are out there. Those are the people who should be subjected to harsh laws, not Genarlow Wilson."
The Georgia high court technically upheld an earlier decision by a lower state court that found Wilson's prison sentence cruel and unusual, and thus illegal under the state and federal constitutions.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears noted that the Georgia Legislature had altered the law in 2006 to make conduct like Wilson's a misdemeanor that would not require registry as a sex offender. Sears said that represented a "seismic shift in the Legislature's view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing participants."
Sears added that Wilson's case "does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children and that, for the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime."
In the dissenting opinion, Justice George H. Carley noted that the Legislature clearly stated that its 2006 alteration was not to be applied retroactively.
The incident occurred at a New Year's Eve party in 2003 in a hotel room Wilson had gotten with some friends. Wilson originally was charged with raping another girl, a 17-year-old, at the party and was acquitted.
Although some activists have alleged that racism played a part in the case, the circumstances were complicated. The prosecutor, Douglas County Dist. Atty. David McDade, has noted in the past that the two alleged victims were black.
In June, McDade told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that if he had not pursued the case, "I would have justifiably been accused of putting a deaf ear to African American victims."
In a statement Friday, McDade, who is white, said he disagreed with the court's decision.
At the news conference, Wilson was asked whether race played a role in his prosecution. "I wouldn't necessarily say that," he said.
Bernstein said she had been carrying her client's civilian clothes -- a pale-blue dress shirt and navy slacks -- in her car for months.
"I'm glad they're finally on him," she said.
Fausset reported from Atlanta and Jarvie from Forsyth.