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Romans 10:13
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Judge voids sentence in teen sex case
By Shannon McCaffrey - Associated Press

ATLANTA --For Genarlow Wilson, the joy was short lived.

The Georgia man, who has become a symbol for what happens when the push to get tough on sex offenders strays into the murky realm of teen sex, was ordered released from prison by a state judge who called his 10-year sentence "a grave miscarriage of justice."

Cheers went up from his legal team. His mother, Juannessa Bennett, wiped away tears as she called the decision "a miracle."

But some 90 minutes later the mood in the Wilson camp was sober - even angry - again as Georgia's attorney general announced that he would appeal. Wilson wouldn't be walking out of jail on Monday after all.

The case of Wilson, a former high school football star and honor student, has become a cause celebre, the fodder for prominent editorial pages and national news broadcasts. Some prominent supporters, including former President Carter, have also said it raises questions about race and the criminal justice system.

"As far as I'm concerned, this case is a throwback to Southern justice," state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, said.

Wilson and five other male partygoers charged in the cases were black, as were the two teenage girls involved.

Wilson is serving a 10-year mandatory sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl in 2003 when he was 17 and will also be on Georgia's sex offender registry.

The sentence has been widely criticized as far too severe for the crime.

Georgia lawmakers last year voted to close the loophole that led to his 10-year term. Under the "Romeo and Juliet" exception in Georgia law at the time of his crime, he would have only faced one year in prison and would not have been placed on the sex offender registry if he had sexual intercourse with the girl.

Georgia lawmakers last year voted to close the loophole. But the state's top court said the new law could not be applied retroactively to Wilson's case.

Wilson's release could open a floodgate for other cases, argued those opposed to Wilson's release. Statistics provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections found that 189 people are in the state's prison system who were sentenced when they were 21 or younger for aggravated child molestation, as Wilson was.

Of those, 56 percent were white and 44 percent black, state figures found.

Still, the case has taken on strong racial overtones. Black community leaders planned a protest outside of Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office late Monday. Baker, who is black, is now pushing to keep Wilson in prison, arguing his sentence is valid.

In his notice of appeal, Baker argued that Georgia law does not give a judge authority to reduce or modify the sentence imposed by the trial court. He said he would seek an expedited ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court. And he noted that a a plea deal is on the table that would spring Wilson in a maximum of five years and also remove him from the sex offender registry.

Not good enough, said Wilson's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein.

"It is really ridiculous when you consider that we had a judge that just said it is a misdemeanor that carries no sex offender registration," she said.

"It is extremely, extremely disturbing that the attorney general would take this action now."

Bernstein said her office was seeking bond for Wilson, now 21, which would allow him to leave prison while his appeal was pending.

He has been behind bars for more than 28 months.

The judge's ruling Monday threw out Wilson's 10-year sentence and amended it to misdemeanor aggravated child molestation with a 12-month term, plus credit for time served, and he would not be required to register as a sex offender.

"The fact that Genarlow Wilson has spent two years in prison for what is now classified as a misdemeanor, and without assistance from this Court, will spend eight more years in prison, is a grave miscarriage of justice," wrote Judge Thomas H. Wilson, no relation to Genarlow Wilson.

"If this court or any court cannot recognize the injustice of what has occurred here, then our court system has lost sight of the goal our judicial system has always strived to accomplish ... justice being served in a fair and equal manner," the judge wrote.

For Wilson's mother the day was an emotional roller coaster.

Jubilant at the prospect of seeing her son a free man, she looked stricken after learning of the appeal.

"It's heartbreaking," Bennett said.

A jury in 2005 found Wilson guilty of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl during a 2003 New Year's Eve party involving alcohol and marijuana. Although the sex act was consensual, it was illegal under Georgia law.

Wilson was also charged with rape for being one of several male partygoers at the Douglas County hotel to have sex with another 17-year-old girl, but was acquitted. The party was captured on a videotape that was played for the jury.

The five other male partygoers took plea deals in the case. One of them has been released from prison and is now in college.
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