A wild New Year's Eve two years ago has landed a Georgia teen in prison for 10 years on charges of child molestation in a case that has state legislators reworking the strict law that put him behind bars.
Genarlow Wilson and a group of friends had the kind of bash no parent would want their teenager to attend. Crime scene investigators combing the room in a Days Inn in the small town of Douglasville, Ga., found evidence of drinking, as well as condoms and wrappers littered all over. Plus, there was a video camera.
In a portion of a tape obtained by "Primetime," Wilson, then 17 and an honor student and star athlete who was homecoming king, is seen having intercourse with a 17-year-old girl, who was seen earlier on the bathroom floor. During the sex act, she appears to be sleepy or intoxicated but never asks Wilson to stop. Later on in the tape, she is seen being pulled off the bed.
Other portions of the tape show a second girl, who was 15 and later said she did not drink that night. She was recorded having oral sex with several boys in succession, including Wilson.
The following morning, Wilson got a phone call that would change his life. He learned from a friend that the 17-year-old had gone to the police to report that she'd been raped.
"I was, like, 'What? When was this happening? Did this happen at the same party I was at?'" Wilson said. "It was shocking to me."
A Decade in Prison
Authorities believed the 17-year-old alleged rape victim and said she was too intoxicated to consent to any sexual acts, which is what Georgia law requires, otherwise these acts can be considered rape.
Six boys, including Wilson, were arrested on various charges, including rape. District Attorney David McDade said the videotape was critical to his case. "There is no doubt that without the videotape we would have to be relying on the statements of these young people, and that would have been a more difficult prosecution," he said.
Wilson maintained his innocence. "I know that it was consensual," he told "Primetime." "I wouldn't went on with the acts if it wasn't consensual. I'm not that kind of person. No means no."
Five of the boys accepted plea deals, but Wilson -- the only one without a police record -- held out. "I knew Genarlow's state of mind," said his attorney, Michael Mann. "He wasn't going to prison willingly. He wasn't going to plea to something in his mind he didn't do."
He stood trial in February 2005 for five days. And at first, the jury's deliberations moved swiftly. Jurors voted to acquit Wilson of raping the 17-year-old.
"I mean it wasn't even an hour," said jury forewoman Marie Manigault. "We immediately saw the tape for what it was. We went back and saw it again and saw what actually happened and everybody immediately said not guilty."
But there was one other charge the jury had to decide on. The second girl in the videotape was 15, and the age of consent in Georgia is 16. And under state law, prosecutors charged Wilson with aggravated child molestation. To those close to the young man, it was an outrage.
"Nobody could believe that this is the law," Mann said.
Even jurors frowned on the charge. "A bad law, absolutely," Manigault said.
And in Georgia, that they'd had oral sex made matters worse. Until 1998, oral sex between husband and wife was illegal, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. In Wilson's case, even though he is only two years older than the girl, she was 15 and -- willing or not -- could not consent legally that night.
Whatever their feelings about the law, jurors felt they had no choice but to find Wilson guilty of aggravated child molestation. Moments later, back in the jury room, jurors were told for the first time that the conviction came with a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in prison. In addition, Wilson would be forced to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
McDade said Wilson could have had a better outcome if he had accepted the plea deal. "What I believe is that Genarlow Wilson listened to people who were trying to use this case for another agenda and he followed their advice," he said. "Do I believe that [in] Genarlow Wilson's case justice would have been served if he accepted a lesser plea? Sure I do. I wish he had of. Sure I do."
'Doing What's Right'
Before the incident, Wilson -- by any measure -- had beaten the odds. The son of a single mom, the high school senior was an honor student and an all-conference football player and track star, with offers to play in college. He was popular enough to be elected homecoming king at Douglas County High.
"I was the first-ever homecoming king at my high school," he said. "That was a very great privilege for me."
Atlanta attorney B.J. Bernstein has filed Wilson's appeal. She said prosecutors should never have brought charges and that justice should have been meted out at home.
And a state legislator who helped pass the molestation law said it was never meant to police teen sex.
"The legislative intent was to protect women and children from sexual predators," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a Democrat in the Georgia State Assembly.
As the court considers Wilson's appeal, the Georgia legislature is rewriting the law that sent Wilson to prison. In a bill that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, the crime would become a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year in prison, or even probation. And anyone convicted would not have to register as a sex offender.
Today Wilson remains as steadfast as ever about not taking the deal that would have reduced his sentence by half.
"It's all about doing what's right," he said. "And what's right is right, and what's wrong is wrong. And I'm just standing up for what I believe in."
To find out more about Genarlow Wilson's appeal, visit www.wilsonappeal.com, or click here.