Court Orders Release of Man in Teen-Sex Case

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Georgia Supreme Court yesterday ordered the release of a man who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was two years older than she was.

In a 4 to 3 ruling, the court upheld an earlier decision by a county judge who ruled that Genarlow Wilson's sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the state and U.S. constitutions.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears said the state has an interest in protecting children from premature sex, but "we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children."

Sears wrote that Wilson's 10-year prison term without the possibility of probation or parole "appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime."

Sentencing guidelines for a number of other crimes were evidence of the disparity in Wilson's case, Sears noted. For example, she said, a person in Georgia could get in a shoving match, walk away, retrieve a gun and kill the other person, and then receive a manslaughter conviction that carries as little as a one-year maximum prison sentence.

Like the recent Jena Six incident in Louisiana, the case highlighted complaints by civil liberties advocates that the criminal justice system dishes out harsher punishments for black youths.

Wilson's attorney, Brenda Joy Bernstein, could not be reached for a comment, but she was quoted on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site as calling the high court's ruling just.

Bernstein told the newspaper that Wilson, 21, was set to be released yesterday afternoon, but a spokeswoman at the Al Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth County, where he was being held, said she could not confirm that statement.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice George H. Carley argued that the majority showed disregard for the new law and that the court's action would set a dangerous precedent.

"Any and all defendants who were ever convicted of aggravated child molestation and sentenced for a felony . . . similar to Wilson are entitled . . . to be completely discharged from lawful custody," Carley wrote.

Sears addressed Carley's argument directly.

"The dissent's concerns about the impact of today's opinion is unfounded," she wrote. "Today's opinion will only affect a small number of individuals whose crimes and circumstances are similar to Wilson's, i.e., those teenagers convicted only of aggravated child molestation."

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