a bird and a bottle

Criminal Justice? Some Thoughts on Genarlow Wilson
December 22, 2006, 10:26 am
Filed under: criminal justice, feminism/s & gender, law, news

I am sure most of you have heard by now about the sad case in Georgia in which a young man has been sentenced to ten years for having consensual* oral sex with a fifteen year-old when he was seventeen. The NY Times features an editorial today that is really spot-on (and captures some of the anger I feel about this case). I’ve pasted the whole editorial below. I hope you’ll read it.

As I said, I think the Times does a pretty good job here, but fails to mention one important thing: race. Mr. Wilson, a black man, was prosecuted by a white prosecutor in the American South. The combination of good ol’ boy politics and wide prosecutorial discretion has resulted in a tragic misapplication of the law. There’s been a lot of talk about this case in the blogosphere, and many others have written at length about the issues of race bound up in Mr. Wilson’s prosecution and conviction (see differing opinions here, here, here, and a feminist take here).

That last link from Tennessee Guerilla Women has contact information so you can send a letter to the GA governor letting him know what you think of his state’s handling of this case…. I encourage everyone to do so. And without further ado, here’s the NY Times Editorial:

Free Genarlow Wilson Now

Genarlow Wilson loves reading mystery novels and can’t wait for the next Harry Potter book. The 20-year-old former high school football player and honor student works in a library, the perfect job for a young bookworm. Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends and a genuine horror story of this country’s legal system begins.

The library in Georgia where Mr. Wilson works is in prison. He is two years into a sentence for engaging in consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s Eve party when he was 17. He won’t be eligible for parole until he has served 10 years, essentially sacrificing his remaining youth to an obvious miscarriage of justice.

As Shaila Dewan reported in The Times this week, Mr. Wilson has been convicted of aggravated child molestation even though he and the girl were both minors at the time. Even if he could win an early release, Mr. Wilson could not go home to his family. He would have to register as a sex offender and would be prohibited from living with his 8-year-old sister. It is all the more disgraceful because the Georgia Supreme Court last week refused to hear his appeal.

The sexual act took place during a party involving sex, marijuana and alcohol, all captured on a graphic videotape. But that does not make Mr. Wilson a child molester. When high school students engage in consensual sexual activity, that is not the same as an adult molesting a teenager or a teenager molesting a child.

What makes this case more absurd is that if Mr. Wilson and the young woman had sexual intercourse, he would have been guilty only of a misdemeanor and not required to register as a sex offender, thanks to a provision in the law meant to avoid just this type of draconian punishment for consensual youthful indiscretions, the “Romeo and Juliet” exception. And since Mr. Wilson’s conviction, the law has been changed to exempt oral sex as well. But the courts say that can’t help Mr. Wilson retroactively.

His lawyer is planning to file a habeas petition seeking his release. The courts need to grant it and expunge his record so that Mr. Wilson can return to his family and his once promising academic career. Legislators in other states should take notice and make sure that their own laws do not catch children in dragnets designed for predatory adults.

* Regarding the young woman’s consent: This article casts the young woman’s consent into doubt. And the defense tactic of showing that the woman flirted and was also drinking and using drugs makes me uncomfortable because it raises the specter of the “she was asking for it” defense. But I think in this case we need to put the issue of consent aside – if only for a moment – so we can figure out how to remedy what is clearly an egregious use of a now overturned law.


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