November 2, 2007

Ga. Court, Headed by Alumna, Frees Convict

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Genarlow Wilson, convicted in 2005 of aggravated child molestation, was released last Friday after the Georgia Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears ’76, ruled that Wilson’s 10 year sentence was a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Wilson, now 21, spent more than two years in jail after being convicted of having oral sex with a consenting 15-year-old girl when he was 17. Georgia law states that the age of consent is 16 and is only taken into account when dealing with cases of sexual intercourse. Despite the minor age difference, Wilson fell victim to a law intended to provide severe punishment to child molesters and was charged with a felony, sentenced to 10 years in jail and his name was added to the sex offender registry.
The application of this law to Wilson’s case highlighted major issues surrounding Georgia’s laws regarding statutory rape and consent.
“Had Genarlow had intercourse with this girl, had he gotten her pregnant, he could only have been charged with a misdemeanor and punished up to 12 months,” Brenda Joy Bernstein, who served as Wilson’s lawyer, told The New York Times.
Thomas Reinstein ’08, president of Cornell’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted the flaws in the law regarding this case and agreed that Wilson’s sentencing was not appropriate.“I think that essentially what this case revolves around is the application of a law with a lot of loopholes. Wilson fell through one of those loopholes,” Reintsein said.
The attention Wilson’s case drew highlighting the injustice of the legal system pushed Georgia state legislators to make consensual conduct between minors a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The law passed on July 1st, 2006, making the crime punishable by a maximum one year sentence and not making individuals register as sex offenders. Unfortunately, the changes in Georgia law were not made retroactive. Thus, although Wilson’s case served as a catalyst to the new law, Wilson himself was unable to reap the benefits of the change.
Although the new laws still do not apply retroactively, Wilson’s plea was recognized by the Georgia Supreme Court on Oct. 26, when in a 4-3 vote, the justices ruled that Wilson’s conviction was a form of cruel and unusual punishment, calling the sentence “grossly disproportionate.” Wilson was released later that Friday afternoon and reunited with his family.
Chief Justice Sears wrote for the majority, noting that, “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 and that, 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.”
Sears received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1976. She was the first African-American woman to serve as Superior Court Judge in Georgia. She was also the first woman and the youngest person ever to serve on Georgia’s Supreme Court when elected in 1992. Justice Sears serves on the Cornell University Women’s Council as well.
The majority’s use of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is an interesting aspect of the case. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that a sentence is considered cruel and unusual punishment if it “is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.” The majority opinion highlighted how the Georgia Supreme Court rarely overturns sentences based on the Eighth Amendment’s grounds, but has done so twice before following legislative changes.
The decision of the Georgia Supreme Court to release Wilson is seen by many as a step forward in addressing the injustices of the legal system.
“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,” Rev. Al Sharpton told CNN reporters.