Turmoil at nexus of the law and teen sex
Georgia's high court hears a case Friday concerning merits of a 10-year sentence for a sordid but unforced act.
Atlanta — Even after a judge last month deemed Genarlow Wilson's 10-year prison sentence "a grave miscarriage of justice," the state of Georgia has kept him locked up.
Twenty-eight months ago, a Douglas County, Ga., jury found the former star athlete and high school scholar guilty of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex, as a 17-year-old, with his girlfriend, then 15, at a videotaped hotel-room party on New Year's Eve in 2004.
On Friday, the Georgia Supreme Court will hear an appeal by the state attorney general, who seeks to uphold the sentence.
The case, experts say, confronts the legacy of race-conscious justice in the South, as well as how attitudes toward teenage sexuality are evolving, or not, in the Bible Belt.
The court's ruling, if it favors Mr. Wilson, could even impel 1,300 other men serving long jail terms in Georgia for similar offenses to appeal their sentences.
"Those critical [of the prosecution] see it in terms of broader social ramifications and changing norms, but to [the district attorney] it's more about what happened in the hotel room," says Ron Carlson, a law professor at the University of Georgia in Athens (UGA).
Wilson's case has stirred enough of a ruckus to spark legislative reform at the statehouse. Earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers tempered tough state molestation laws by passing a "Romeo and Juliet" provision that takes into account similar ages of perpetrator and victim.
To keep the case moving forward and preserve the state's reputation, the Supreme Court moved Wilson's court date up by two months. The court is scheduled to address the merits of the so-called habeas corpus ruling in June that deemed the punishment unjust. Also at issue in the appeal: the subsequent denial of a bond hearing in Douglas County, where Wilson was originally tried.
Such actions by two branches of government indicate that prosecutors may have overreached their bounds in the case, says Donald Wilkes Jr., also of the UGA Law School.
The moves "tell us they're concerned," and that the sooner justices address it "the less Georgia will appear to be the medieval laughingstock to the rest of the country, and indeed the world," says Professor Wilkes.
How many blacks view the case
For many African-Americans in the US, the case represents a form of arcane justice in which a young black man without a criminal record can be sentenced to 10 years in prison for what many call consensual sex, while a vice president's adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, can have his two-year jail sentence for obstructing federal justice commuted by President Bush. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who is black, made this point on the stump in New Hampshire this month.
"This case represents yet another tragic breakdown in the criminal-justice system that, unfortunately, fails young African-American males too often," says a statement from the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington. "It is unjust, unfair and un-American."
And the mother of the girl, who is at the center of the case, has said publicly that Wilson's sentence is excessive.
Crucial to the case is the hotel-room videotape, 35 copies of which were made and distributed in June to lawmakers and media by prosecutor David McDade in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Associated Press. The US attorney in the state has since ordered circulation to cease and desist, calling it child pornography.
"It has been described as a profanity-laced, weed-smoking series of sexual encounters," says Professor Carlson. "It's a pretty grimy episode and not a very attractive portrayal of teenage life. It's been an opinion changer."
The issue of consent
State GOP lawmaker Eric Johnson of Savannah, leader of the Georgia Senate, says he went from having no opinion on the case to a strong opinion in favor of the sentence after seeing the tape. The nature of consent – complicated by the age of the girl and obvious drug and alcohol use – is the core issue, he says.
"When you hear that it's 10 years for consensual oral sex for two kids, you go, 'That doesn't sound right,'" says Senator Johnson. "But when you see the tape, you see ... drugs, alcohol, attitudes, arrogance, and disregard. While it may be consensual, you don't know about intimidation or if she feels obligated. That's why you set an age in the first place where you can make a decision like that."
Despite the blurry consent issues, Wilson's sentence indicates that Georgia law is out of step with modern views on sex, especially as the statutes equate oral sex with sodomy, says Melinda Chateauvert, an African-American studies instructor at the University of Maryland. In fact, Wilson would have received a lighter sentence if he had had intercourse with the girl.
Studies show that a majority of teenagers, even some of those who have taken abstinence vows, believe that oral sex is an acceptable and safer substitute for intercourse, Ms. Chateauvert says.
The case shows how "people opposed to sexuality and sexual expression use scare tactics to persecute or maintain laws even if people are not violating consent," says Chateauvert.
Johnson disagrees. In his view, the Wilson case is a wake-up call to teenagers that there are consequences to actions. At the same time, he blames Wilson's supporters and the media for drawing inferences about the state of Georgia without looking more closely at the adjudicated details of the case.
"There's nobody in jail in Georgia for any length of time for consensual oral sex in the backseat of a car," he says.