Genarlow Wilson released after Georgia Supreme Court decision

Updated: October 26, 2007, 11:05 PM ET news services

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." on Wilson ruling

•  Genarlow Wilson, imprisoned for more than two years in a state prison in Georgia, plans to make a return to sports and school.'s Wright Thompson was there at Wilson's release and writes of his "whole new life" that awaits. Story

• The Georgia courts were put in a difficult position by the combination of absolute prohibition and draconian penalty, writes's Lester Munson. Story

• Read the full ruling issued Friday by the Georgia Supreme Court ordering the release of Genarlow Wilson from prison. Read the Ruling (.pdf)

Wilson, who was the homecoming king at Douglas County High, was a track and football star that would have played college football, his coaches said. He was all-conference in football and even held future NFL first-round draft pick Calvin Johnson to four catches in two games, according to his coaches.

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 prominent 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 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 another 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."

The man who prosecuted Wilson, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, said he disagreed with the decision, but he respects the court "as the final arbiter."

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.

E-ticket: Outrageous Injustice

In January, published the story of Genarlow Wilson's crime, punishment and fight for justice in a story that won the PASS Award (Prevention for a Safer Society) from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Read Wright Thompson's report here.
Thompson: Outrageous Injustice

Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, said: "Each day that this young man spent in prison was a day too long."

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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.