Update: Teen Serves Time, Senator Waffles

Feb. 22, 2007 — -- Legislation intended to help Genarlow Wilson, a one-time high school honor student and star athlete who is serving a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for engaging in consensual oral sex with a schoolmate, has hit a snag in the Georgia General Assembly.

Last month, Sen. Emmanuel D. Jones, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would allow judges to change or suspend Wilson's sentence and hundreds of others like it.

The legislation was never placed on the calendar of the Senate Judiciary Committee, though.

'Harsh, but Fair'?

The reason why became clear when Eric Johnson, Senate president pro tempore, a Republican, appeared on the Senate floor last week to denounce the bill, saying Wilson's sentence was harsh, but fair.

Last year the Georgia Senate passed legislation that changed the definition of most sexual acts between consenting teenagers from felonies to misdemeanors. The bill, later signed into law by Georgia's Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, was supported by Johnson.

"There's certainly duplicity on the issue," Jones told The New York Times. "If you supported it last year, I don't see how you don't support it this year."

Under the law, a person convicted of Wilson's crime can serve no more than a year in jail. The Georgia Supreme Court later ruled the new law could not be retroactively applied to Wilson or others convicted under the previous statute.

Wilson, now 20 years old, is not eligible for parole. He has served approximately two years of a 10-year sentence.

Addressing his fellow lawmakers on the Senate floor earlier this month, Jones, sponsor of the latest piece of legislation, said, "I don't think this body intended to keep this child in prison for 10 years. … As we debate, Genarlow waits."

In a newspaper column that never mentions that Wilson was less than two years older than the schoolmate with whom he had engaged in the consensual sex, Johnson wrote: "People seem to forget that a 15-year-old girl was the victim. I stand with her. I also stand with future possible victims of politically correct apologists who want to turn loose convicted sexual predators."

Before his conviction, Wilson had never been in trouble with the law.

That Fateful New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve 2004. 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 everywhere. Plus, there was a video camera.

In a portion of a tape obtained by "Primetime," Wilson, then 17, 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 accuser 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 [have] 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.

Historically, oral sex has been covered under the sodomy laws in Georgia. 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 was only two years older than the girl, and she was an apparently willing participant, at 15 she 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."

Wilson's Atlanta attorney B.J. Bernstein 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.

When it acted last year, the state legislature reclassified Wilson's offense from a felony to a misdemeanor. Punishment ranges from probation to a year in jail. 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, orclick here.