Double Standards of Justice: The Case of Gernarlow Wilson

Four years ago, in Douglasville, Georgia, a 17-year-old high school senior made a fateful mistake, one that would cost a surprising price. During a New Year's Eve celebration, Gernarlow Wilson participated in consensual sexual act with a 15-year-old girl. He was charged and convicted of aggravated child molestation and received a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in State prison, without the possibility of parole. Wilson is now 21 years old and has served over two years in prison. As a result of his conviction and consequent mandatory sentence, a new Georgia legislation went into effect in 2006, called the "Romeo and Juliet" law, which made a ruling that no other teenager prosecuted for engaging in a consensual sexual act can receive such a tough sentence. Had this statute been made retroactive or been in effect at the time of Wilson's act of sodomy, he would have only been convicted of a misdemeanor, have to serve a maximum of 12 months and not have to register as a sexual offender.
Such a serious legal contradiction has drawn local and national outrage, due to the fact that Wilson had no criminal history and was a star student. Many believe that his prosecution and consequent sentencing was overzealous and race-based. "The issue here is prosecutorial discretion. This is the reason Gernarlow has so many public supporters. It is apparent that the time doesn't fit the crime committed", B. J. Bernstein, Wilson's Defense Attorney said. "All we seek for Gernarlow is fairness, no special treatment. The thing about this case is that everyone knows that there is a problem here. Parents know. Black people know. White people know. What we are seeing is the politics of the war on crime. There was no discretion used in this case. No commitment to follow the intent of the aggravated child molestation statute. This law wasn't made for teens like Gernarlow," she added.
What Bernstein refers to is the ongoing campaign by the Douglas County District Attorney and the Georgia State Attorney General, Thurbert Baker, to uphold the rule of law, regardless of the mitigating circumstances of the case. Pleas for Wilson's release have come from various high-level American politicians, civil rights activists, news media organizations and even some of the jurors who convicted him.
In May 2007, former United States President Jimmy Carter wrote a letter to Attorney General Baker, in which he questioned whether Wilson's race had played a role in this handling. "The racial dimension of the case is likewise hard to ignore and perhaps, unfortunately, has had an impact on the final outcome of the case", he wrote, pointing out that white defendants have received lesser punishments for similar conduct. In Georgia, white male juveniles commit over 60 per cent of consensual sex offences among youth, according to the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. However, black male juveniles received the harshest sentences. One Wilson supporter, Charles Stelle, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), weighed in on the controversy. While hosting a conference, he said to a large crowd of SCLC members: "As we at SCLC prepare for our 50th annual conference, we are also preparing to stick with this case. We will hit the streets to demand the justice that has to date been unavailable from this State's legal system." In addition to SCLC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), ESPN, The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have all joined together to call for Wilson's release from prison.
Finally, in June 2007, Monroe County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson-no relation-ordered the release of Gernarlow Wilson and reduced his sentence to time served, calling it a "miscarriage of justice". Judge Wilson said: "If this court, or any other, 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."
In response, Attorney General Baker filed an appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court-a move that has prolonged Gernarlow Wilson's incarceration. He said he chose to appeal for two primary reasons: he voiced concern about the impact the ruling would have on countless other cases and that the judge overstepped his boundaries. "The court's attempts to amend the judgment of conviction, re-sentence Mr. Wilson and to credit him for time served, however well meaning, are simply unauthorized by Georgia law", Baker explained. "In light of the changes made to the law in 2006 by the legislature, I personally believe the sentence is harsh, but personal beliefs are not argued before the court, only the law, nor can personal beliefs override my constitutional obligation to enforce the law", he added.
Still, throughout Wilson's incarceration, many believe "prosecutorial discretion" was misused or all together unavailable. The idea is that when the defendant is poor, black or an immigrant, prosecutorial discretion is limited, if not missing. Bernstein explained: "When a 17-year-old male has intercourse with a 15-year-old female, statutory rape sets the maximum punishment at 12 months for a misdemeanor conviction, with no sex offender registration." However, the sexual act by the 17-year-old Wilson and the 15-year-old girl made him guilty of aggravated child molestation, which dictates a mandatory ten years in prison and lifetime sex offender registry, according to the attorney. She added that "Georgia law at the time of this offense violates the equal protection guarantees of the State and Federal constitution. It is up to the prosecutor to determine whether or not the statute truly fits the alleged crime."
Although the Georgia legislature has revised the aggravated child molestation statute, in the case of Marcus Dixon, another young black student's future has been changed forever. In February 2003, he had consensual sex with his white classmate, who was just shy of 16 and alleged to be a virgin. Two days later, she accused him of rape. In May 2004, Dixon, at the time an 18-year-old honour student with a 3.96-grade point average and future aspirations to play college football, was sentenced to ten years in a Georgia prison. He was acquitted on felony rape charges, but found guilty of aggravated child molestation. At the time, consensual sex with a virgin fit into the technical reading of this particular Georgia statute. His football scholarship at Vanderbilt University was revoked following his arrest.
The case drew national attention and strong criticism from civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP. A year later, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the aggravated child molestation conviction, but letting the statutory rape conviction stand, which carries a maximum sentence of one year and a $1,000 fine. Then the Supreme Court advised the legislature to revise the aggravated child molestation statute to reflect the true intent of the law, but nothing was changed until the Gernarlow Wilson case re-illuminated the legal discrepancy. Meanwhile, Wilson remains in prison-his future, just as Dixon's, resting in the hands of the Georgia Supreme Court.
Juanessa Bennett, Wilson's mother and biggest supporter, said there is still hope for Gernarlow's future. "He was an honour student. I think he still has a chance to finish school and go on to college. Once he gets out, I think there's always a chance that he can go. However, not with a felony conviction, he wouldn't be able to obtain the education that he deserves to have", she said. "But I think there's a good chance that he'll be able to go back to school. He's way behind. He'll have to do a lot of catching up, maybe a whole lot of summer school, but I think he still has a chance," she hoped.