Genarlow Wilson released
Georgia Supreme Court rules his sentence was cruel and unusual
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 sentence after the youth had consensual 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.
As Wilson, now 21, emerged from the prison escorted by two guards, he broke into a wide grin, embraced his mother Juannessa Bennett, picked up his 9-year-old sister Jiaya who was 4 when the man's ordeal began ” and walked to a podium accompanied by his family and attorney, B.J. Bernstein.
"It feels great" to be free, Genarlow said.
Wilson has served 2 years 8 months of a 10-year sentence. He was convicted in February 2005 of aggravated child molestation. The crime 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.
"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," Genarlow 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.
The court's 4-3 decision upheld a Monroe County judge's ruling that the 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.
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.
What a wonderful way to end Friday!
I hope Genarlow sticks to his promise that he will talk to young people, so they can learn from his mistakes.
God is awesome, and so is the strength and perserverence of a mama!
God bless the family-it's not over yet!
There's still work to be done!