October 26, 2007

Court orders Wilson freed in teen sex case

Given the court did not invalidate his conviction, Wilson was convicted of a felony sex crime. Yes, they invalidated his sentence, but not his conviction. Accordingly, since the Adam Walsh Act was made retroactive to the beginning of time, will Wilson have to register when Georgia enacts their version of AWA? Time will tell...

10-26-2007 Georgia:

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The Georgia Supreme Court on Friday ordered that Genarlow Wilson be released from prison, ruling 4-3 that his sentence for a teen sex conviction was cruel and unusual punishment.

Wilson, 21, was convicted in 2005 of having oral sex with a consenting 15-year-old girl when he was 17.

He has served more than two years in prison.

Wilson's attorney, B.J. Bernstein, told CNN she is working to gain his quick release, which could come sometime Friday. She said she called the prison warden, who informed Wilson.

"We've been praying for it every day," Bernstein said of the court's decision. "We want him home."

Bernstein added that the ruling shows "the courts do work." She said Wilson's mother, Juannessa Bennett, is "overjoyed."

A spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker said there will be no further appeals. Watch what has to happen before Wilson goes home »

"I respectfully acknowledge the court's authority to grant the relief that they have crafted in this case," Baker said.

"I hope the court's decision will also put 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."

Friday's decision came after a protracted legal battle that has galvanized international attention and drawn the involvement of civil rights leaders. Partly as a result of Wilson's conviction, state legislators changed the law to make such consensual conduct between minors a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

"The release of Genarlow Wilson by the Georgia Supreme Court is a significant victory in redressing the reckless and biased behavior of the criminal justice system that now operates in many states across the union," the Rev. Al Sharpton said.

"The bad news is that his young life was so unfairly interrupted with time that no state court can recover for him," Sharpton added. "This is why the Justice Department and federal government must review state courts that willfully and almost without pause violate the civil rights of people, particularly young black men around this country."

Wilson was an honor student, a football star and his high school's homecoming king before his conviction.

Prosecutors offered him deals, but he and his attorneys rejected them, saying anything that leaves a record for him as a registered sex offender is unfair.

At the time of Wilson's conviction, Georgia law made the crime punishable by 10 years in prison. Changes in the law made such conduct "punishable by no more than a year in prison and no sex offender registration," the Georgia high court noted.

But those changes were not made retroactive, so they did not apply to Wilson.

The high court upheld the decision of a Monroe County judge. In a 48-page opinion, the court said the "severe" punishment Wilson received and his mandated sex offender registration make "no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment."

The case revolves around a 2003 New Year's Eve party outside Atlanta when Wilson engaged in the sex act with the girl.

Under the now-changed Georgia law, Wilson was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation. He was acquitted on a second charge of raping a 17-year-old girl -- who prosecutors maintained was too intoxicated at the party to consent.

The 10-year sentence was mandatory under the law.

In the decision, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote that changes in the law "represent a seismic shift in the legislature's view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants."

"Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children," the court's majority found.

"For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," the majority opinion concluded.

The dissent noted that the Georgia Legislature had made clear that the changes in the law were not to be applied retroactively.

Writing for the dissenting justices, Justice George Carley said, "The General Assembly made the express decision that he cannot benefit from the subsequent legislative determination to reduce the sentence for commission of that crime from felony to misdemeanor status."

The majority countered that it was not applying the 2006 amendment retroactively, but instead factoring that "into its determination that Wilson's punishment is cruel and unusual," the court said in a news release.

The court said this kind of decision is unusual: "The majority opinion points out that this court rarely overturns a sentence on cruel and unusual grounds. But twice before, it did so following a legislative change."

The Monroe County Superior Court judge also ruled that Wilson's punishment was cruel and unusual and voided it on constitutional grounds.

The judge reduced the sentence to one year and said Wilson should not be put on Georgia's sex offender registry, as the old law required.

Wilson's jubilant attorneys had hoped that ruling would free him from state prison. But shortly after it was handed down, Georgia's attorney general announced he would appeal that decision, a move that kept Wilson behind bars.

The Georgia high court said unanimously that the decision to deny Wilson bail was correct.

Wilson's plight drew pleas for his release, including from former President Carter, himself an ex-Georgia governor, and even some jurors who convicted him.

Legislation that would make the change in Georgia's child molestation law retroactive to free Wilson failed to win approval earlier this year. ..more.. by CNN's Mary Lynn Ryan contributed to this report.

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