The story of Genarlow Wilson makes news readers uncomfortable – and sends a shiver down the spines of the parents of teenagers. It is something they will have to get used to now that the Rev Al Sharpton, the radical black politician and the undisputed king of the street protest has decided to become involved.
Back in 2003, Wilson, was a 17-year-old pupil getting top grades and showing enough promise as a footballer to catch the attention of Ivy League schools. Popular among students and teachers, he was voted Homecoming King, an honour bestowed on a star student or athlete.
Today Wilson is two years into a 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year old girl at a New Year’s Eve party three years ago.
The age of consent in Georgia is 16 and the law at the time required a minimum 10-year prison sentence for the crime. A peculiarity of Georgia’s laws made it a “a misdemeanour for teenagers less than three years apart to have sexual intercourse,” but a felony for them to have oral sex.
Like many states, oral sex in Georgia has always been covered under the sodomy laws – designed primarily to outlaw gay sex. As recently as 1998, even oral sex between husband and wife was illegal, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation, and that carried a mandatory 10 years without parole. His case quickly gained national notoriety but to little effect. Every attempt to have the case thrown out has ended in failure.
Mr Sharpton’s involvement is certain to raise the temperature further. On Thursday, he addressed cheering crowds at a protest rally outside the county courthouse in Douglasville. “We’re here today because what affects you affects all of us,” he told the protesters.
In the latest twist, a Superior Court judge cancelled a hearing that could have seen Wilson released today because there is a law that prohibits appeal bonds for people convicted of his crime and who have been sentenced to five years or more in prison. So, even though the state legislature has changed the law and it has become the laughing stock of the country, Wilson remains in jail.
On New Year’s Eve 2003, Wilson and his friends were having the sort of party that is every parent’s nightmare. When police searched the room at the local Days Inn hotel, they found evidence of underage drinking, used condoms and a video camera.
The TV programme Primetime got its hands on the tape which shows Wilson, then 17, having sex with a seemingly drunk 17-year-old girl. She was earlier filmed passed out on the bathroom floor. Another section of the tape shows a second girl, 15 at the time, having oral sex with several boys in succession. Wilson was one of them. The girl later said she had not been drinking on the night in question.
The next morning, Wilson’s life was turned upside down when he learnt that the 17-year-old had gone to the police to report that she’d been raped. “I was, like, ‘What? When was this happening? Did this happen at the same party I was at?'” Wilson told Primetime. “It was shocking to me.” Six boys, including Wilson, were arrested on various charges, including rape. Wilson maintained his innocence, saying “it was consensual, I wouldn’t have … if it wasn’t consensual. I’m not that kind of person. No means no.” The five other boys made plea bargains.
But Wilson – the only one without a police record – refused. “He wasn’t going to prison willingly,” said his lawyer, Michael Mann. “He wasn’t going to plea to something in his mind he didn’t do.” He stood trial in February 2005 and the jury moved swiftly to acquit Wilson of raping the 17-year-old. But jurors felt they had no choice under the law but to find him guilty of aggravated child molestation. Only later did they learn that it carried an automatic 10-year sentence without parole and that he would be forced to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.