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Friday, October 26, 2007

Genarlow Wilson Freed

FORSYTH, Ga. — Genarlow Wilson walked out of prison a free man today, ending a case that drew national umbrage over a state law that mandated a long jail term after the youth was convicted of having had sex with another teen.

Wilson was released about 5:30 p.m. from the Burruss Correctional Training Facility in this Monroe County city, hours after the Georgia Supreme Court tossed out his 10-year sentence for having had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.

Emerging into a cool, sunny afternoon —a perfect Georgia autumn day — and escorted by two guards, Wilson came down his path with his hands in his pockets.

The 21-year-old former inmate broke into a wide grin when he saw his his mother Juannessa Bennett, 9-year-old sister Jiaya — who was 4 when the man's ordeal began — and their attorney, B.J. Bernstein. He hugged his mother, picked up his sister and carried her to a podium set up for the news media.

"It feels great," Wilson said. "After today, I believe in the justice system."

Wilson has served 2 years 8 months of a 10-year sentence. He was convicted in February 2005 of aggravated child molestation, a crime that carried a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years with no parole. The law was changed in 2006 to make Wilson's crime a misdemeanor with a maximum 1-year sentence when it involved teenagers within certain age ranges.

Wilson told reporters he was glad he did not accept a plea deal, as his accomplices did, because he would then have been designated a sex offender for the rest of his life.

"I wouldn't be able to be here near my beautiful sister," he said, gesturing to Jiaya.

Wilson said he spent most of his time while incarcerated reading the Bible and books about patience. He first heard he might soon be free this morning, when someone told him he had heard the news on the radio.

"I was in disbelief. I was waiting to see for myself," he said.

Asked about what happened to him in prison, Wilson said, "For the most part, I've matured. This is no place I'd ever want to come to again."

Asked by reporters what he planned to do now, Wilson replied, "First thing I'll do is, I'm going to get some rest."

Then, he added, he wants to get back to school. A high school graduate, his goal of attending college was cut short by prison.

Asked if there would be a welcome home party, he said to the laughter of everyone present, "There's not going to be any more parties for a while."

"I know he's learned a lot," his mother said. Asked what she would do now for her son, she said, "I've got some more meat on those bones."

"We are all thrilled for this day," Bernstein later told reporters. "This is never going to happen again in Georgia. We are so grateful.... The system does work, and the Georgia Supreme Court came through today."

"There were definitely some things that went wrong that night," Bernstein said, referring to the 2003 New Year's Eve party in Douglasville where the tragedy began. "I want Genarlow's story to be a warning to other young people."

"This is an awakening for parents with teenagers. You have to have that conversation with your teenager."

The Supreme Court ruling caught Wilson, his family and their attorney by surprise. The first word anyone had was when the Clerk of the Court's office called Bernstein this morning to tell her she a 48-page document was being faxed to her.

"My stomach just paused," Bernstein said.

The lawyer then read the court's 4-3 decision upholding a Monroe County judge's ruling that Wilson's sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under both the Georgia and U.S. constitutions.

The majority opinion said the sentence appeared to be "grossly disproportionate" to the crime and noted that it was out of step with current law.

Bernstein called her client's mother, she gathered up her daughter, and the three of them set out for the long drive to Forsyth — a trip delayed by heavy traffic headed south of town to the Atlanta Motor Speedway as well as the usual Friday evening crush.

Wilson, meanwhile, ate his last prison meal — a lunch that included a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a bologna and cheese sandwich.

After arriving at the prison about 5:15 p.m., Bernstein, Bennett and Jiaya quickly walked inside, escorted by prison officials. When reporters gathered nearby called out, Jiaya turned and smiled at the crowd.

Prison officials passed along clothes Bernstein had carried around in her car for a year in anticipation of the day he won his freedom: a Ralph Lauren long-sleved checked shirt, navy pants and Cole Hahn shoes. Wilson was wearing them when he emerged.

"I'd like for people to learn from my situation .... just to know a few miniutes of fun could be a lifetime of hard times," Wilson said.

"It's a whole new beginning. All I can do is start from today."

The Supreme Court on Friday morning ordered Wilson's release, voiding the controversial 10-year sentence he was serving for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. He is now 21.

Wilson was convicted in February 2005 of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex with the girl at a 2003 New Year's Eve party in a hotel room.

The crime carried a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years with no parole. But the law was changed in 2006 to make Wilson's crime a misdemeanor with a maximum 1-year sentence when it involved teenagers within certain age ranges.

That fueled Wilson's legal appeal on grounds that he'd been unfairly sentenced under a law aimed at older offenders.

"Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children ..." wrote Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears in the majority opinion.

She said 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."

Justice George Carley, in the dissent, said the 2006 change in the law was specifically written so it would not be retroactive. He said "the General Assembly made the express decision that he cannot benefit from the subsequent legislative determination to reduce the sentence for commission of that crime from felony to misdemeanor status."

Carley said the majority opinion showed "unprecedented disregard" for the legislative intent of the law change and creates the potential for releases of "any and all defendants who were ever convicted of aggravated child molestation and sentenced" under circumstances similar to Wilson's.

Wilson's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein, said earlier Friday that she was elated by the ruling.

"We never turned away from the courts," she said. "The Supreme Court issued a wonderful and just decision. We had faith in this all along -- although it took a little longer than we thought it would."

She said Wilson, once released, will do all he can to encourage teenagers to do the right thing.

"Genarlow is going to be committed to talking and working with young people to spread the message that he made a mistake that night and doesn't want it to happen to anyone else," he lawyer said.

In a statement issued Friday, Attorney General Thurbert Baker said he will "respectfully acknowledge" the state Supreme Court's decision.

"I hope the court's decision will also put an end to this issue as a matter of contention in the hearts and minds of concerned Georgians and others across the country who have taken such a strong interest in the case," Baker said.

Baker's office had appealed the ruling by the Monroe County Superior Court judge who overturned Wilson's felony conviction last summer and reduced it to a misdemeanor. That judge's ruling to resentence Wilson to a misdemeanor, "however well-meaning, was unauthorized under Georgia law," Baker said. "It was for this reason that I appealed, in order to (ensure) a fair and consistent application of the law, not just to Mr. Wilson, but to others similarly situated."

In its majority opinion, the state Supreme Court acknowledged that it rarely overturns sentences on grounds that they are cruel and unusual. But the court also noted it has done so twice before following legislative changes. It also said a review of other states showed that most "either would not punish Wilson's conduct at all or would, like Georgia now, punish it as a misdemeanor."

Wilson's case has drawn national attention.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) said Friday that the state high court "righted a great wrong, an unbelievable wrong. This young man, each day he stayed in prison, was a day too long."

Lewis said he visited Wilson in prison a few months ago. "His head was on straight. He's smart. He realized he had made mistakes. He said, 'Congressman, I'm a good person. I want to get out and make a contribution.'"

Lewis said he will do all he can to make good on a promise to help Wilson after his release from prison.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and four state legislators held a press conference at the state Capitol on Friday, at which Jackson called for an end to "over-prosecution" of young black men. "Genarlow is a symbol of a a system that's out of control," he said. "We need oversight for prosecutors who abuse their position."

"It looks like we may be near the end for Genarlow, but let me emphasize there are a thousand -- ten thousand -- Genarlows," said state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta).

Said state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell): "I'm proud to say that the stain that was on the state of Georgia has been somewhat removed."

Jackson said a service is planned at 10 a.m. Saturday at Ebenezer Baptist Church to celebrate Wilson's release. He also said that his organization, Rainbow/PUSH, will contribute $5,000 to a college scholarship fund for Wilson already started by African-American members of the Legislature. "We want schools to bid to offer him scholarships," Jackson said.

Wilson was arrested following a party also attended by five other male youths. His sex act with the 15-year-old girl was videotaped by one of his friends.

Wilson was also charged with raping a 17-year-old girl at the party but was acquitted of that charge.

Several months after he was convicted of aggravated child molestation, a felony, and given the mandatory 10-year term, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation making consensual sex a misdemeanor between teenagers who were as close in age as Wilson and the 15-year-old.

The Monroe County judge's decision came last June, and the state's appeal by Baker sent the case to the Supreme Court.

Also last summer, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade offered Wilson's attorneys a deal in which he could plead guilty to another felony and get a sentence including 5 years of jail time with credit for two years served. Wilson and his lawyers rejected the deal.

Joining Sears in the majority decision were justices Carol Hunstein, Robert Benham and Hugh Thompson. Joining Carley in the dissent were justices Harris Hines and Harold Melton.

Atlantic Constitution