ESPN shines its bright light on the story of Genarlow Wilson -- an honors student jailed for 10 years because of a poorly written Georgia law, a zealous prosecutor, and an impotent governmental system.
The (very) short story: Wilson, 17, had consensual oral sex with a young woman, 15. He was convicted of aggravated child molestation and then sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to FindLaw:
Because Wilson and a 15-year-old girl engaged in nonprocreative sex, his conduct fell squarely within the terms of the aggravated child molestation statute. And though the Georgia legislature subsequently passed a "Romeo and Juliet Law" limiting sentences in cases like Wilson's to one year of incarceration, this law was not written to apply retroactively.
Had Wilson and the 15 year old had sexual intercourse, his maximum sentence -- according to a Georgia Supreme Court ruling in the Marcus Dixon case -- would have been one year. That case, of course, made its way to Oprah. Wilson has Mark Cuban.
But wait. It gets worse. At the same time that Wilson was being sentenced to 10 years in prison, down the hall in the courthouse, a 27-year-old high school teacher got a slap on the wrist (probation, 90 days in jail, not prison) for having sexual intercourse with an 16-year-old male student.
Now you tell me: which act represented a greater breach of trust and societal expectations? Which act has the greater potential for harm?
The District Attorney -- who makes the decision on how to handle cases: which ones to prosecute, which to drop -- charged Wilson with rape and aggravated child molestation. The jury found Wilson not guilty of the rape charge.
According to the jury forewoman, the jury did not know that by convicting Wilson of the aggravated child molestation charge that they had just sentenced him to a mandatory 10 years in prison. “People were screaming, crying, beating against the walls,” she recalls. “I just went limp. They had to help me to a chair.”
Yet right down the hall, Alexander High School English teacher Kari McCarley was standing trial for "carrying on a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male student." She was married, with children. This wasn't a one-time sexual encounter. Her sentence? Three years probation and 90 days in jail.
Like the judge in that case, most of the posters at Free Republic thought her crime was no big deal.
District Attorney David McDade: "We suggested prison time, but the judge imposed a sentence that he felt was right. She [McCarley] was not having sex with a student directly under her supervision."
See, with sexual intercourse, the judge has discretion. With aggravated child molestation, the legislature set the minimum at 10 years. Nevermind that the intent of the legislation was to prosecute adults preying on pre-adolescent children, not two teens where the younger teen initiated the sexual contact.
Plea Deal Declined
Wilson chose not to plea bargain because first, he wasn't guilty of either rape or molestation, and second, he did not want to spend his entire adult life on a registry of sexual offenders. He was the only teen involved whose case went to trial. The others succumbed to pressure from the DA's office; most also had prior records. Wilson did not.
The small-town (Douglasville estimated population in 2005: 27,568) district attorney and prosecutor -- Eddie Barker -- made Wilson pay for the effrontery of insisting on his innocence. [Also, Douglasville is predominantly white; Wilson is black.]
Why do I say they "made him pay"? First, the DA's office agreed that the young woman initiated the act. (So did she.) So why prosecute? Wilson was an honors student, had no tangles with the law, and there was no crime, ie, no one was harmed.
Nevertheless, McDade and Barker chose to prosecute the case. Moreover, as ESPN writes:
Barker is quick to point out that he offered Wilson a plea after he'd been found guilty -- the first time he has ever done that. Of course, the plea was the same five years he'd offered before the trial -- not taking into account the rape acquittal. Barker thinks five years is fair for receiving oral sex from a schoolmate. None of the other defendants insisted on a jury trial. Wilson did. He rolled the dice, and he lost. The others, he says, "took their medicine."
This quote makes no sense to me. I don't see how Barker could offer a plea post-conviction if the mandatory sentence is 10 years. Before trial, sure.
Atlanta Magazine quotes District Attorney McDade:
"We don’t believe that a 10-year sentence is an appropriate punishment [in this case], but he made that decision to put himself in that predicament,” explains McDade, of Genarlow’s refusal to cop a plea. “He has decided to become a martyr because people have been whispering in his ear, ‘We’ll make you famous like Marcus Dixon.’” ...
McDade says he further supported the judge’s decision to treat Genarlow—the only one who had not had any run-ins with the law prior to this case—the same as the other [five] boys because he does not believe in offering First Offender status in sex crime cases.
I find the attitude reflected by the DA's office to be small-minded, abhorrent and fully representative of too many middle-aged southern white men. (I know of what I speak: I am a middle-aged southern white woman, even if I no longer live in my native South.)
Consistency Is Not Douglas County's Strong Suit
Atlanta Magazine points out the inconsistency when the Douglasville defendant is an adult white male:
But there are also other cases of adults—white adults—prosecuted by the Douglas County District Attorney’s office for sex crimes involving minors and received far lighter sentences than any of the teens in the Douglasville Six case.
Case in point: Jack Stewart, a 24-year-old volunteer coach at Heirway Christian Academy in Douglas County, who received 30 days in jail and 10 years probation for fondling the 15-year-old daughter of a couple whose house he was living at temporarily. McDade notes that he objected in court to the “inappropriately light” sentence.
In the case of 26-year-old George Tsimpides, First Offender status was extended in a sex crime. Tsimpides received 20 days in jail after he pleaded guilty to luring a 15-year-old girl he’d met on the Internet to Arbor Place Mall with the intention of engaging in sex with her. McDade says he publicly objected to that sentence.
One assumes these cases occurred before Georgia's mandatory 10 year prison term; Atlanta Magazine does not say.
What You Can Do
If you know someone in Georgia, have them contact their legislators (Senate, House) and urge their support for Senate Bill 37 (bill text, summary). The bill would untie the hands of the courts.
Of course, you can do this too, even if you are not a Georgia resident, but having a constituent write or call or even e-mail is more effective.
Oh, and if you know of a PR firm that wants to do some pro bono work ...
See Also: Wilson Appeal.