FORSYTH, Ga. – A former high school football star given 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with another teenager was freed Friday by Georgia’s highest court, which ruled that his sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Genarlow Wilson spent two years behind bars in the case that led to widespread protests of racism and heavy handed justice.
“I was in total disbelief,” Wilson told reporters outside the prison. “I’m finally happy to see we’ve got justice now.”
Wilson, 21, also said he wants to help other teens and offered some advice: “They should be very hesitant before they join certain crowds and make certain decisions.”
In its 4-3 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court noted that state lawmakers had scrapped the law that required a minimum 10-year prison term.
That change, the court said, represented “a seismic shift in the legislature’s view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants.” The justices also said Wilson’s sentence made “no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment,” and his crime did not rise to the “level of adults who prey on children.”
After he was imprisoned, Wilson became the subject of editorials and national news broadcasts. His sentence was denounced even by members of the jury that convicted him and the author of the 1995 law that put him in prison.
Supporters including former President Jimmy Carter said the case raised troubling questions about race and the justice system. Wilson and the girl are both black.
Wilson, a former honor student and homecoming king, was convicted of aggravated child molestation after he was videotaped having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a 2003 New Year’s Eve party in a hotel room. He was 17 at the time. Wilson was acquitted of raping a 17-year-old girl at the party.
State Attorney General Thurbert Baker said he hopes Friday’s ruling puts “an end to this issue as a matter of contention in the hearts and minds of concerned Georgians and others across the country who have taken such a strong interest in this case.”
Wilson’s supporters were jubilant.
“I never gave up hope in our judicial system, and I never gave up hope in all the prayers people sent out for us,” said Wilson’s mother, Juannessa Bennett.
The 1995 law Wilson violated was changed in 2006 to make oral sex between teens close in age a misdemeanor, similar to the law regarding teen sexual intercourse. But the state Supreme Court later upheld a lower-court ruling that said the 2006 law could not be applied retroactively.
The high court had turned down Wilson’s appeal of his conviction and sentence, but the justices agreed to hear the state’s appeal of a judge’s decision to reduce Wilson’s sentence to 12 months and free him. That judge had called the 10-year sentence a “grave miscarriage of justice.”
Wilson said he plans to return to school and sports and possibly study sociology. For now, he was looking forward to spending time with relatives.
“I feel I’ve been away from them long enough,” he said. “At times, we’ve dealt with adversity. Now my family, we finally get to deal with happiness.”