A couple of attorneys, an urban studies professor and a former Seventeen Magazine editor have banded together to launch a new website that helps teenagers know their legal rights. The website is called My5th.org, and was named (obviously) for the 5th Amendment.
This may sound like another well-intentioned but ultimately boring and ineffectual idea, but wait, there’s a twist.
The inspiration for the site is a young man named Genarlow Wilson., (whose attorney, BJ Bernstein, is one of the site’s founders).
In case you missed that story, fasten your metaphorical seat belts, and read on:
(Chapeau tip to commenter Woody for originally bringing the case to my attention),
It’s the ultimate cautionary tale for teenagers, illustrating how tragically things can go awry if kids aren’t aware of the laws that could potentially affect them.
It is also a tale of the collateral damage that inevitably occurs when legislators and members of congress try to out law-and-order each other for political gain by passing ever tougher and tougher laws—without ever bothering to think through the consequences.
Here are the basic facts of the case:
Genarlow Wilson was a 17-year-old high school senior in Douglasville, Georgia, and a kid who seemed to do everything right. He was a good student —3.2 GBA-–an all conference, star football player, track athelete, and a tall, good looking, very well-liked guy. (Imagine a younger, handsomer Snoop Dogg, but without the bad ass attitude.) Genarlow was so well-liked in fact, that he was elected the school’s first ever homecoming king his senior year,and the prom prince the year before. Several colleges were competing to give Genarlow Wilson a full ride based on his grades and his sports abilities.
Then on New Year’s Eve of 2004, Genarlow’s high-achieving, golden life took a drastic turn. That was the night that and his friends decided to rent a room at the local Day’s Inn and have a party without the benefit of parents present. They invited a group of classmates, male and female both, and nearly everyone present drank too much, smoked lots of weed, and, in the cases of several of the kids, engaged in questionable sexual relationships. Plus, as seems to be increasingly common these days, one of the partygoers videotaped the whole thing.
Genarlow partied energetically along with the rest of them. He had sex with one 17-year-old woman and, when another girl volunteered to give him oral sex, he cheerfully accepted.
The next morning, , the seventeen year old who, it seems, had sex with a couple of the guys, Genarlow included, told her mother she might have been raped. The police investigated, and got hold of the video camera. Although the tape showed sex with the 17-year-old had been consensual, it also showed Genarlow’s moments of oral sex with the 15-year old.
As a consequence, on the day he was to have taken his SAT test, Genarlow was arrested charged with aggravated child molestation. It seems that the girl who’d given him the blow job was 15, below the age of consent. (Sorry, but there’s no polite way to have this conversation.)
It turns out that having oral sex with a minor in Georgia is a felony carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in state prison. The fact that Genarlow was a kid too, that he and the girl were only two years apart in age, and that the girl told authorities (and the tape showed) she’d willingly initiated the encounter, didn’t matter in the eyes of Georgia law.
(Weirdly, although oral sex with a minor is a felony in Georgia, had the same two teenagers simply done the wild thang with each other, without adding in oral sex, it would have only been a misdemeanor.)
Feeling he’d done nothing wrong, Genarlow refused to take a deal. Instead he went to trial sure that the law couldn’t possibly be so crazy as to send an exemplary kid with no prior police-run ins, to prison for having consensual sex with a classmate. (Genarlow and the girl had been fellow track teammates.)
The jury, however, felt they had no choice but to convict Genarlow, although no one, said jury members, explained to them the drastic consequences of the conviction.
Jury foreman, Marie Manigault, says she “couldn’t sleep for months after the verdict.”
The prosecutor on the case, maintains that he had no other choice but to charge Genarlow as he did. Yet, his words carry less credence when one learns that, when Genarlow was on trial, just down the hall in the same court house, another Georgia judge was hearing the case of a 27-year-old high school teacher who was found guilty of having sex with a 17-year-old boy at her school. Unlike Genarlow, the teacher was sentenced to three years probation and 90 days in jail.
Meanwhile, Genarlow Wilson is two years into his ten year sentence. Yet, even when he’s released, unless a judge or the Georgia legislature act to intervene, the effects of that New Year’s Eve blow job, don’t end there. From the time of his release from prison, for the rest of his life, Genarlow will have to register as a sex offender. This means he can’t life within a certain proximity of a school, can’t hold certain kinds of jobs….
A number of media outlets, local and national, have covered the story at one time or another, but the most comprehensive look at the case is this article at Atlanta Magazine >by Chandra Thomas for Atlanta Magazine< . Thomas interviewed Genarlow extensively. Here’s a representative clip.
““What if I had kids one day,” he asks aloud, his intensity drowning out the buzz of the many other conversations underway in the crowded visitors’ room. “I could not even live near their school. If I had accepted that deal, after I got out of prison I still would not have been able to live in my mom’s house with my little sister.”
NOW HERE’S THE REALLY IRONIC PART: On Monday of this week, former Georgia Rep. Matt Towery, the guy who actually wrote the poorly thought out bill that resulted in Genarlow’s imprisonment, published a column saying that the bill was never intended for people like Genarlow Wilson.
Oh, really. DUH!
Well, thank you for sharing your feelings, Mr. Towery. But that’s what always happens when thoughtless lawmakers pass poorly written bills simply because they want to look tough on law-and-order issues. We get horrid laws on the books, people’s lives are ruined, and our prisons fill up.
And we get bad, sad cases like that of Genarlow Wilson.
PS: This is the kind of case that drives me crazy, so I’ll continue to bring you updates if and when they occur. It will be interesting to see if any of the adults—namely Georgia legislators–who have been wringing their hands in public over the case will actually step up to the plate and do something about it.