ATLANTA – The courtroom was packed with supporters and cameras Friday as Georgia's top justices heard arguments over whether a young man serving a 10-year prison term for consensual oral sex with a fellow teenager should be freed.
The long punishment spurred angry protests and led the state to change the sentencing law. A state judge in June ordered the young man freed, but because of an appeal by the state attorney general, Genarlow Wilson remains behind bars.
The Supreme Court justices will decide whether the state judge's order freeing Wilson should stand.
Attorney General Thurbert Baker argues that the order to free Wilson, if upheld, could be used to help free some 1,300 child molesters from Georgia prison.
"We urge you to look beyond the confines of this case," Senior Assistant Attorney General Paula Smith told the court's seven justices Friday.
Wilson's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein, said that Wilson's decade-long mandatory sentence violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"Every day that a defendant spends in jail is a precious day in their life," Bernstein said.
The justices seemed to be wrestling with how to provide Wilson relief under the law.
"We have a responsibility to enforce the law," Justice Robert Benham asked. "Should we do that at the expense of fairness?"
The 1995 law Wilson violated was changed in 2006 to make oral sex between teens close in age a misdemeanor, similar to the law regarding teen sexual intercourse. But the Supreme Court later ruled the 2006 law could not be applied retroactively.
Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation following a 2003 New Year's Eve Party at a Douglas County hotel room where he was shown on videotape having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. Wilson was 17 at the time.
The state Supreme Court had declined Wilson's appeal of his conviction and sentence, but the justices agreed to hear the state's appeal of a Monroe County judge's decision to reduce Wilson's sentence to 12 months and free him. The Monroe County judge had called the 10-year sentence a "grave miscarriage of justice."
Former state Rep. Matthew Towery, the author of the 1995 law, submitted a friend of the court brief supporting Wilson's release.
"The General Assembly never intended for the Child Protection Act's harsh felony sentences designed to punish adults who prey on children to be used to punish consensual sexual acts between teenagers close in age," Towery's brief said.
Bernstein argued that the law's changes in 2006 marked a "tectonic shift" in how Georgia views voluntary consensual teen sex. She also noted the rarity of legislation that softens punishment.
"The new reality is that teen sexual experimentation is commonplace in an era where the media bombards teens with sexual imagery," she wrote.
Baker countered that it is well established that criminals are subject to the penalty in place when the law is violated. To apply legislative changes retroactively would invite chaos, he argued.
"It potentially affects countless others who may be in the prison system or on probation or who have completed their sentences," Baker wrote.
Outside court, satellite trucks and Georgia State Patrol cars lined the streets, reflecting the attention the case has drawn. A New York-based hedge fund manager volunteered to help post $1 million bond for Wilson, and hundreds of supporters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, held a rally earlier this month demanding Wilson's release.
Wilson rejected plea offers, including one that prosecutors said would have allowed him to avoid being listed on Georgia's sex offender registry.