Jan. 24, 2004 -- — It's a "great town," says WRGA Radio newsman Doug Walker. But Rome, Ga., is also a town torn apart.
About 60 miles northwest of Atlanta, Rome has been left mostly unaffected by the sprawling growth of the state capital.
"Originally [it] would have been on the path of Interstate 75, but the powers that be, 50 years ago, rejected that, and 75 went east of Rome, and so Rome is not on the heavy-growth pattern," said Walker. "I think most of the folks in this community are probably glad of that."
Rome's comfort over being bypassed was rudely interrupted last year. The town has drawn intense national scrutiny ever since Feb. 10, 2003, when a once-favorite son named Marcus Dixon got into deep legal trouble by having a sexual encounter with a fellow student in a trailer containing classrooms at Floyd County's Peperell High School , a few miles outside Rome.
The case was a classic he said/she said. He, aged 18, called their sex consensual; she, 15, called it rape. There were no other witnesses. Only the principals knew the true story, but the outlines of the case suggested some simplified possibilities.
"I think that the system, the DA's office, the court system, possibly the police, saw in this case what they expected to see," said Dixon's defense attorney, Fred Simpson. "You have a huge black athlete, so much bigger than this little white girl. and I think their mind formed a stereotype. They automatically assumed that Marcus was guilty."
But stereotypes cut both ways. HBO's RealSports saw Dixon as trapped by the prejudices of an old-line, white Southern town, characterized by videotape shot somewhere else of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen on the march.
Simpson called that "over the top, because the Klan has not marched in Rome in over 10 years."
The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel also portrayed Dixon as little more than a victim, although it could find no logic for his victimization.
Was Race a Factor?
In Floyd County, Marcus Dixon was well known as a football hero. "He was a big kid," said Walker. "He was fast. He was aggressive. He was very, very talented."
Norman Arey, who covered the story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said Dixon was gifted academically as well as athletically.
"Not only was Marcus Dixon an excellent football player with several scholarship offers, but he was a very, very bright kid that tested more than 1,200 on the SATs and had a scholarship offer that he had accepted from Vanderbilt University up in Nashville," said Arey.
Other aspects of Dixon's biography were also well known. He was born into severe poverty and domestic instability, until he was virtually adopted by Ken and Peri Jones. He is African-American and they are white. Many neighbors, the Joneses say, have abused them as "nigger-lovers" since Marcus moved in.
"Race was the reason that the girl reported anything in the first place because she was scared of her dad finding out that he was black," said Peri Jones. "That's why he was reported. Had they both been white it never would have been reported."
Needless to say, Peri Jones believes what "he said" about the sexual encounter.
"What we had, it was consensual sex," said Dixon. "She took her own clothing off, and we just had sex."
It was easy to get Dixon' side of the story from him and his guardians, his attorneys, and local community leaders like the Rev. Terrell Shields of New Mount Calvary Baptist Church, which is just down the road from Peperell High School.
"It was consensual sex between two teenagers," said Shields. "We don't condone it, but it happens every day."
Arey noticed the same imbalance. "Marcus Dixon's people have been very accessible. They can't wait to talk to you. For whatever reason, the young girl's folks have not been forthcoming."
One reason for their silence: Peperell High School and some local school officials have been targeted in a lawsuit by the girl and her family. Their lawyer declined Nightline's request for a taped interview.
Police: Her Account Checks Out, His Doesn’t
Authorities, however, stand behind the arrest.
"I have to go beyond just 'he said, she said,' " said Floyd County police investigator Gary Conway. "I go on this particular case with the evidence, witness testimony and also how people are coming across when you talk to 'em."
Conway is the one person who would talk with Nightline authoritatively about what "she said." He still believes it it to be true.
"Talking to the victim," he said, "she was very emotional, a wreck. It took a while to get anything out of her because of the nature of the crime, and it fits the crime."
In their very first interviews, Conway said, she cried and he lied. "Mr. Dixon denied knowing the girl," Conway said.
Dixon admitted, "In fact I did mislead him." But, he said, he felt threatened. "The only reason was 'cause he was just throwing in my face that my folks would lose their job, and that my scholarship would just go down the drain and I would be locked up for a long time."
Conway says the contrast between Dixon's several false versions of the incident and the girl's detailed account helped make up his mind. "I went back to that classroom where this incident took place. I could visualize everything she told me once I had walked in there."
A Series of Sexual Misconduct Allegations
Then, Conway says, he learned this wasn't Dixon's first "he said, she said" situation.
"One other occasion, he was exposing himself, taking his penis out in a classroom, standing behind a girl and having her turn around," Conway said.
The girl in that incident, Conway says, was shocked. Dixon says it was just a joke.
"It was stupid, a stupid prank, you know. It didn't really happen the way they said it happened," he said. "I had shorts on, and my private, you know, was out. She looked at it, and we was all just laughing about it."
Who to believe? This February's encounter was not the first time Dixon had confronted his guardians with that difficult question. In his sophomore year at Peperell High, he was suspended for indecent exposure.
"I had Marcus call the girl's father up, and he apologized to the girl's father, and he apologized to the girl," said Ken Jones, Dixon's foster father.
Beyond that, Jones says, he left Dixon to punish himself. "He stayed in the house for a week. He didn't even go to church. He was embarrassed for anybody to see him and know he'd some something like that."
But Jones said he and and his wife did warn Dixon, who remembers the message. "They basically said, you need to leave these girls alone and watch what you do because you're being watched at all times."
But the warning seemed not to take. The next year there was another incident, in which Dixon allegedly groped a member of the high school track team after practice.
"That didn't happen at all," said Dixon. "It was made up. There was no touching, however they said it, the bottom or vagina.",P>
According to Conway, who has also investigated this allegation, the girl said "Mr. Dixon placed his hands inside of her shorts."
At the Floyd County prosecutor's office, they added up the results of Conway's detective work on Marcus Dixon this way: sophomore year, indecent exposure; junior year, indecent touching; senior year, alleged rape — all involving girls under 16. They concluded this latest case should be considered Dixon's third strike, that he needed to go to prison for a long time because he is a sexual predator.
Jury Sees It His Way
But the jury that heard his rape trial did not consider the previous allegations of exposure and touching.
"Marcus is not a sexual predator," said juror Kathy Tippett. "When I heard the testimony on those accusations ... they didn't hold very much weight with me."
Tippett says the jury quickly dismissed charges of rape, sexual battery, aggravated assault and false imprisonment against Dixon. "It took us about 15, 20 minutes to come to a conclusion on the rape and all those charges that hinged on rape," she said. "We knew what it was. It was consensual sex."
Simpson, who led Dixon's courtroom defense, thinks it was "the statement from the victim as to the manner in which Marcus allegedly raped her" that swayed the jury.
"[It] just didn't make sense," Simpson said. "He grabbed her by both arms and while holding her by both arms, he then used his elbows and knees to get her blue jeans, her button-down jeans down."
Kathy Tippett agreed that the alleged victim's story of how her clothes came off alienated the jury. "When she testified, she said that he had taken her pants down with his knees and his elbows, and we as a jury, we found it impossible."
The jury did convict on two counts. Tippett says one was easy, the misdemeanor. "Statutory rape — that was a given. It all of 30 seconds because of the way the law is written. We had no choice on that."
The second charge on which the jury found Dixon guilty was aggravated child molestation. "That was the hardest thing," said Tippett. "I think that's what we spent the most time on, was trying to come to a conclusion on that particular charge."
On HBO's Real Sports, Bryant Gumbel got Assistant District Attorney John McClellen to admit the aggravated child molestation charge was used as a kind of "backstop," in case the rape charge failed.
Too Harsh a Sentence?
Aggravated child molestation is a recently defined crime in Georgia. It requires sex with a minor that causes injury. Because the girl in this case was a virgin, her first intercourse caused some vaginal injury. "That was a sticking point," Tippett said. "The way the law reads, we kind of had our hands tied."
But even though they convicted Dixon of the aggravated child molestation charge, the jurors had no idea of the consequences for Dixon, Tippett said. "I really didn't know," she said. "I don't think anyone on there did. We all thought it was a misdemeanor. We all thought he would go home."
But aggravated child molestation is not just a felony in Georgia, it is a special felony, one of the so-called seven deadly sins. Conviction meant a minimum of 10 years in prison for Dixon, with no possibility of parole.
"I think about Marcus every day," said Tippett, sobbing. "I know I made a mistake. He does not belong in prison. If I had known, I would have held out. I wouldn't ever have done it because I do not think the punishment fits the crime."
Nine other jurors contacted by Nightline refused to comment. Journal-Constitution reporter Arey said he talked to four jurors right after the sentencing and "all four said they had no idea, that they thought the kid would go home at the end of the day."
Dixon's attorneys went before Georgia's Supreme Court on Thursday and argued that the sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
"The argument that we're making in the Supreme Court is not that the jury has come out and said, this is unfair, this is not what we expected or intended and we don't think it's right," said David Basler, the attorney handling Dixon's appeal.
"The legal argument is based on the fact that we have a specific statute in Georgia which deans with teen sex, especially with teenage sex between people who are less than three years apart, which we have here," said Basler. "The Georgia Assembly has said that it is a misdemeanor, and our argument is that using a different statute with a much harsher penalty in this context is inappropriate and wrong."
Prosecutors, however, told the state Supreme Court that the mandatory prison term of at least 10 years was exactly what state law intended. "It is the job of the Legislature and not the courts to define crimes and their penalties," said McClellan.
Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a state legislator who helped pass the law on aggravated child molestation, endorses Basler's argument that it was misused against Dixon. "This law was designed to protect our children from predators, not to police relationships among our children," he said.
Brooks thinks he'll soon have the votes to change the law on aggravated child molestation. But that will be too late for this case, says WRGA's Walker. "Unfortunately, rewriting the law in Georgia is not going to help Marcus Dixon one bit."
A Community Divided
Walker worries about the case's impact on Rome and Floyd County. "To be honest, it's been divisive, very divisive racially. There are many people in the community who felt as if the case had been two kids of the same race, it would not have been prosecuted as aggressively as it was."
Rev. Shields is in that camp. "We had a rally here at the church back in June, the last Sunday in June, to raise funds for his defense." Days after the rally, Shields said, things got ugly. "Somebody broke in, broke out a stained-glass window, went downstairs in the Fellowship Hall, throwed food all over, and we had to throw it out. They didn't steal anything. They was just sending another message that, you know, leave things alone."
In prison, Marcus Dixon is hoping his legal appeal, now being considered by the Georgia Supreme Court, will set him free. In the mean time, he said, "I usually try to keep myself busy. I might go outside in the dorm area, play cards or something. But mostly I just read my Bible, or read any kind of book, just to keep my mind off it."
Dixon's prison routine for the last eight months could have been much worse. He's been kept out of the much harsher places that house most of Georgia's young sex offenders. He lives in a minimum-security facility, two corrections officials told Nightline, because, after lots of psychological tests and close observation, he was judged to be a minimal risk.
"I'm not a sexual predator, I'm not no rapist," Dixon said. "I was just having consensual sex with another teenager. I had goals in life to do things, and still do if everything works out right, and this is just not me. To be in prison is way out of my character.".
That's what he said. The man who investigated the case, police investigator Gary Conway, sees it differently.
"Marcus Dixon, a very smart athlete, chose the way he done, so I cannot sit back and say, let's slap him on the wrist and tell him not to do it again," said Conway. "That was a real major crime."
Was what Marcus Dixon did in that trailer-classroom a major crime worthy of 10 to 15 years in prison? Or was it definitively a misdemeanor due a markedly lighter sentence? That choice is now up to the Georgia Supreme Court. A decision is not expected for months.
This reported aired on Nightline on Jan. 21.