It's either a grievous miscarriage of justice or a case of following the letter of the law.
Either way, the fact remains that a Georgia man is two years into a 10-year sentence after being convicted at the age of 17 of aggravated child molestation for receiving oral sex from a then 15-year-old girl.
Others argue that the incarcerated is no "choirboy" serving time for a crime he did commit.
After exhausting their appeals, lawyers for Genarlow Wilson, 21, on Thursday petitioned the Georgia attorney general to review the case.
"Yesterday [April 11] we saw the attorney general of North Carolina take a look at a case and realize that the prosecutor who originally had the case was wrong, and our hopes are now that the attorney general of Georgia will take a look at this situation as well and realize that it's unjust," said B.J. Bernstein, Wilson's attorney.
Bernstein filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus Thursday with the Superior Court of Monroe County with Wilson's mother, Juanessa Bennett, at her side. Wilson is serving his decade-long sentence in a prison in Monroe County, Ga. When he's released, he'll be labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life.
"Genarlow Wilson has now spent over 26 months in prison for an act which now is only a misdemeanor, an act which was consensual and an act which happens all over the U.S. amongst teens, if you look at the statistics with regards to teen sex," his lawyer said.
Promising Start Takes a Wrong Turn
In the fall of 2003, Genarlow Wilson held a 3.2 grade-point average and was voted homecoming king of Douglas County High School in Douglasville, Ga. He was, by many accounts, on his way to getting into college and forging a successful career on the gridiron.
But his life changed forever on New Year's Eve 2003.
The then 17-year-old and a group of friends made the ill-fated decision to ring in the New Year on a drug, sex and alcohol-fueled bender at a Days Inn in suburban Atlanta. Among the partygoers in the adjoining rooms were two girls, ages 15 and 17.
The next morning, the 17-year-old girl told her mother that she had been raped, according to court documents. Police searched the motel and found a video camera and a tape of the previous evening's events.
The tape showed Wilson having sex with the "apparently semiconscious" 17-year-old and the 15-year-old performing oral sex on him, according to documents.
Douglas County District Attorney David McDade took the case before a grand jury and came back with indictments against six boys.
Wilson and four others were charged with the rape of the 17-year-old and the child molestation of the 15-year-old. Georgia's age of consent is 16. A sixth teen was charged only with rape.
Five of the defendants decided to plead guilty to charges of child molestation and the lesser sentence of sexual battery. In exchange, they received 15-year sentences, of which they would only have to serve five years in prison, Barker said.
Wilson, who had no prior arrest record, chose to take his case to trial.
"The jury acquitted him of the rape charge, but convicted him of the aggravated child molestation charge," Barker said.
In regards to the child molestation charges, Wilson's lawyer contends the 15-year-old and her mother hadn't claimed a crime was committed.
"They did not push prosecution," Bernstein said. "They didn't call the police. There's never been anything said that it was not consensual."
Douglas County Assistant District Attorney Eddie Barker disagrees.
"I've met with that victim and her mother several times and not once did they ask us not to prosecute this case," he said. "Not once."
The child molestation conviction was a felony that required a mandatory 10-year sentence and a lifetime label as a sex offender.
After the conviction, at the request of Wilson's trial attorney, McDade made the rare decision to allow Wilson to plea in exchange for the deal offered to the other co-defendants, Barker said. At the last minute, Wilson changed his mind and opted to serve the mandatory sentence.
"He didn't want to be on the sex offender registry because that is a sentence far beyond years," Bernstein said.
A Life Behind Bars
For more than two years, Wilson has been inmate No. 1187055 at a medium-security prison in the center of the state, where he works in the medical unit and devours the books his lawyer sends him, everything from the "Harry Potter" series to mysteries.
"I gave him 'The Purpose-Driven Life,' that's been huge," Bernstein said. "He's done the 40-day plan. ... He's been searching really hard in his mind, you know, as a kid, why is this happening? There has to be a purpose for this to keep going and that book has meant a lot to him. It is the topic of many conversations between us."
As Wilson faces the day-to-day realities of prison, Bernstein has been working to get him out. She exhausted appeals to the state Supreme Court, who advised her to lobby the state legislature for a change to the law.
In 2006, the Georgia legislature amended the statute under which Wilson was convicted, making consensual sex acts between teens a misdemeanor provided one party is at least 13, the suspect is not older than 18 and there is no more than four years difference between their ages.
The so-called "Romeo and Juliet" amendment also ensures underage offenders remain off the sex offender registry. Yet it cannot be retroactively applied to Wilson's case.
Several Georgia lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have tried to change that. Sens. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat, and Dan Weber, a Republican, were among the sponsors of Senate Bill 37, which would give courts the power to amend sentences such as Wilson's.
"We have never argued that Genarlow is the victim in this case," Jones said. "He is, however, the victim of unfair legislation, mandating a 10-year sentence, which has already been repealed by the Legislature for cases such as these. Yes, Genarlow made a mistake, one for which he has already spent more than two years behind bars."
Debate between senators garnered headlines that have ignited passions throughout the country and one alleged death threat — leveled toward a Republican senator critical of the legislation.
"These aren't choirboys that we're talking about and Genarlow Wilson isn't a choirboy," Sen. Eric Johnson told local media. He announced earlier this month that the FBI was investigating a death threat against him and his family.
"We've said that he was at a party and he was doing things wrong," Bernstein said. "He was smoking pot, he was drinking underage, he was having sex.
"That's not a choirboy," she continued. "But if that is the measure of a choirboy, that's the reality of many of our children's lives in that age group."
On March 28, the Senate failed to vote on the bill that would allow a judge to change Wilson's sentence, essentially killing it for the legislative session and ensuring it wouldn't be heard until 2008.
With the filing of this latest civil petition, Bernstein hopes to get the Georgia attorney general to review not only the case, but also the way the Douglas County district attorney handled it. It may just be a shot in the dark.
"I don't know why this would have any better chance of succeeding than the arguments she's made before," said Sherry F. Colb, a Rutgers University law professor and author of the book "When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law." "I think her best hope was really dashed last month when the Georgia Legislature refused to amend the statute to be retroactive so that his case."
Barker contends that media coverage of Wilson's case has been skewed, including an extensive profile of Wilson's case on ESPN.com that Barker dubbed "about [as] one-sided slanted of a hatchet job that could have been written."
"There are so many misconceptions about the case," Barker said. "People are so misinformed."
The story has garnered attention from coast to coast and more than 100,000 people have signed a petition for Wilson's release.
Bernstein has met with Barker to discuss possible lesser sentences, but for Wilson, they hinge on expunging a lifetime label as a sex offender.
"I think it's horrendous for a consensual sex act as a teenager to kill any job opportunities," she said. "He wants to work with young people and talk to them about his experiences.
"He wants to say five minutes of fun is not worth a lifetime of regret," she continued. "If he's not off a registry, he's not going to be able to speak to kids, talk to kids. It's insane."
As Bernstein has worked to free her client, she has also tried to inform parents and children of the legal ramifications of underage sex across the country with a blog called My5th.
"This brings up a big issue in general — young people don't know the age of consent in their state," Bernstein said. "They don't know that they could get arrested for having sex. It may not be 10 years like Genarlow, but they could be arrested. And it's kind of a wake-up call."