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."
In 2003, Wilson was videotaped as he received oral sex from the girl during a rowdy New Year's Eve party at a Douglas County hotel. He was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation in 2005.
At the time, Georgia law called for a 10-year mandatory sentence for a male defendant age 17 years or older for having oral sex with a girl younger than 16.
Last year, the Georgia General Assembly changed the law, making the crime a misdemeanor that carries a maximum one-year sentence.
But Wilson remained in prison when the state attorney general, Thurbert E. Baker, determined that his case was not covered by the new law.
In appeals that were taken into account by the state Supreme Court ruling, Wilson's attorneys argued that a man of the same age would face a far lesser sentence for having intercourse with a girl of the same age, based on the law.
Baker said he would acknowledge the court's decision.
"I hope the court's decision will . . . 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 this case," Baker said in a statement.
Bernstein said her client never gave up, knowing that his position would prevail.
"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," the lawyer was quoted as saying.