17-year-old Genarlow Wilson, an honor student, standout athlete and homecoming king, was preparing for the SAT exams he hoped would send him to college. But a New Year's Eve party in 2003 fueled by alcohol, marijuana and sex at a hotel changed all that.
Wilson, now 21, is serving 10 years without the possibility of parole after a jury found him guilty of aggravated child molestation for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl that night.
After jurors learned about the 10-year sentence, there was "mayhem in the jury room," said Marie Manigault, the jury forewoman.
"We were in tears. There was screaming. People were knocking their heads against the wall," she said. "This young man had such a promising future. I would like to see his life given back to him."
The tough sentence has sparked protest, even from the author of the law that put him behind bars.
"The law was designed to protect kids against really, really bad people doing very bad things," said the sponsor, former state Representative Matt Towery. "It was never intended to put kids in jail for oral sex."
On Wednesday, Wilson's legal team again will try to free Wilson as a court hears a claim that his constitutional rights are being violated. They will argue that his lawyer did not subpoena the 15-year-old to testify, and that the sentence was grossly disproportionate.
"This is a good kid who doesn't belong in prison," Wilson's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein, said.
Wilson's case shows how a law designed to go after child sex predators can have unintended consequences and criminalize consensual sexual activity between teens, said Karen Worthington, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory Law School.
Wilson has now served more than 27 months in prison, and his plight has become something of a cause celebre because of the odd legal loophole that caught him.
If Wilson had had sexual intercourse with a teen, he would have fallen under Georgia's "Romeo and Juliet" exception. But under the law in 2003, oral sex for teens still constituted aggravated child molestation and carried a mandatory sentence.
Georgia lawmakers in 2006 changed the law to make consensual oral sex between teens a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of one year behind bars. Offenders also would not have to register as a sex offender, as Wilson will be required to.
But the state's top court ruled that change could not be applied retroactively to Wilson's case. An attempt earlier this year to pass a bill that would provide Wilson a remedy stalled.
The effort was complicated by a homemade videotape showing the New Year's Eve party. On the tape, a 15-year-old girl can be seen performing oral sex on Wilson. It also shows Wilson and other male partygoers having sex with a 17-year-old girl.
Prosecutors argued that the 17-year-old was semiconscious and not capable of consent. A jury that watched the tape disagreed and acquitted Wilson of the rape charges.
The video circulated at the state Capitol, played for some state lawmakers considering whether to pass a new law to help Wilson.
State Senator Emmanuel Jones, who sponsored the Wilson bill earlier this year, called the decision to show the video to lawmakers "unseemly."
"They were trying to adjudicate his case all over again," Jones said.
Wilson's most vocal opponent has been Georgia's top Republican senator, Eric Johnson
"This was not two star-crossed lovers on a date," Johnson wrote in an opinion piece opposing Jones' bill.
The five other male partygoers took plea deals. Wilson's case was the only one that went to trial.
Wilson's supporters have pleaded with state Attorney General Thurbert Baker to intervene. But in a filing last month, Baker's office said the court should deny Wilson's petition and let the conviction stand. Through a spokesman, Baker declined to comment.
Said Wilson's mother, Juanessa Bennett: "We're praying."
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