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Be a Teenager, Go to Prison

April 27th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

Genarlow Wilson - honor student, homecoming king, inmate

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, 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.

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.”

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.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, crime and punishment, juvenile justice, prison | 17 Comments »

17 Responses

  1. Woody Says:

    The Georgia legislature did change the law, so now someone caught in this would not serve jail time. Good? Well, one problem…it isn’t retroactive. Maybe the fear is that, if they make it retroactive, some convicts that they want behind bars could get out. I’m not sure. This one looks in dire need for a pardon from the Governor.

  2. listener_on_the_sidelines Says:

    This really is a sad, sad story. Thanks for writing it up Celeste. It is an exemplar of a cautionary tale. It bears reminding us, as you have, that we elect these folks who want to out law and order each other, ergo we share the guilt. I wasn’t keen on trying kids as adults before, and I’m less so now. Juvie may not have been ‘it,’ but adult prisons, and adult sentences aren’t ‘it’ either. I keep thinking that justice in this case (and other like it) might have been better served in a totally different framework.

    We took lending decisions away from loan officers and put it in the hands of loan committees. That hasn’t worked so well. We’ve taken judicial decisions out of the hands of judges in favor of mandatory sentencing. You’d think we’d learn. One size rarely fits all is a myth. There is a logic to automating data and things, but people and their circumstances often need to be handled on an individual basis.

    Well, Woody. Hmmm.

  3. listener_on_the_sidelines Says:

    Oops. Meant to say… One size fits all is a myth… not the reverse. Mashed up the edits :(

  4. Pokey Says:

    Now criminalizing student ESSAYS along with student SEX

    I am always astounded that seemingly intelligent adults lack any common sense.
    The judge, prosecutor or single juror could have stopped this non-sense, from taking place.

    Now, a student is being charged with disorderly conduct for writing an assigned English creative writing essay. This essay (Grammar and spelling included) below went from teacher, to supervisor to principal to police.

    Blood sex and Booze. Drugs Drugs Drugs are fun. Stab, Stab, Stab, S…t…a…b…, poke. “So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone…, then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did.” Umm, yeah, what to wright about…… I’m leaving to join the Marines and I really don’t give a F… about my academics, so why does the only class that’s complete Bull Shit, happen to be the only required class…enough said. The model citizen would stay around to vote in new board member to change the 4 years of English policy, but no one really stays around to vote for that kind of local crap, so whoever gets there name on the Ballet with a pretty face gets to do what the F… ever they want with local ordinance. A person is smart, but people are dumb selfish animals. We can’t make rules for ourselves so we vote others to do it for us, but we can’t even do that right, I meen seriously, Bush for President? And our other option was John Kerry who claimed to parktake in Vietnam Special Forces missions that haven’t been declassified…. F…… Bull Shit. So Power Flower Super Mario. Pudge, hook, rot, dismember “Fresh Meat.” Mostly new/young teachers are laid back, and cooperative with students as feedback and input into the curriculum and atmosphere. My current English teacher is a control freak intent on setting a gap between herself and her students like a 63 year old white male fortune 500 company CEO, and a illegal immigrant. If CG was a private catholic school, I could understand, but wtf is her problem. And baking brownies and rice crispies does not make up for it, way to try and justify yourself as a good teacher while underhandedly looking for complements on your cooking. No quarrel on you qualifications as a writer, but as a teacher, don’t be surprised on inspiring the first cg shooting.

    Common sense is becoming far to un-common especially among teachers.,CST-NWS-essay27.article

  5. richard locicero Says:

    Well serves the little tykes right. I mean if they can’t learn self-control F-em!

  6. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Pokey, better watch it. You’re soon going to be a card-carrying ACLU Lib-ral. (The horror.)

    This is the sort of thing for which PEN USA has often participated in amicus briefs. In fact, we were involved in a very similar case where northern California kid wrote poetry that had a violent subject matter. One thing led to another, and pretty soon the cops were pressing criminal charges.

    So-called Zero Tolerance isn’t pretty. There’s a study out of Berkeley that follows up on kids who get bounced out of school on some of these kinds and related infractions. The study showed pretty convincingly, that these policies, while well intentioned, did more damage than good, in terms of net social gain/loss. (I just tried to re-find it, and can’t locate it quickly or I’d post a link.)

    Of course, the problem here, is not flagging the essay. Anyone with a brain would realized this kid needed intervention, immediately if not sooner.

    The repeated theme in terms of mental profiles of past school shooters, in addition to the fact that most had been bullied, is that the kids felt that no one cared, no one noticed. In other words, in too many cases, no adult stepped in appropriately.

    Being purely punitive, however, is neither appropriate nor effective.

    I see that the kid in the story you cite had planned to join the Marines after high school. Now as a result of this whole mess, he’s no longer eligible. This is the sort of thing that makes one nuts. He’s probably EXACTLY the kid who would benefit from the discipline of the marines. So, what began as an appropriate red flag indicating that the kid needs some kind of help, turns into something that potentially gets him less help, rather than more, and ultimately damages his life. Smart. Very smart.

    To me the rule of thumb for public policy should be to treat each child as if he or she were our own. If your kid wrote something like that essay, and you were an appropriate parent, you’d talk a great deal to him, try to get to the bottom of what is clearly an indication of distress, and in all probability, get him to a very good therapist. The very LAST thing you’d do is call the cops.

    So why do we imagine that that calling the cops is a good and effective course of action for someone else’s child. It’s as if we suspend everything we know about kids, when we deal with them in an official context.

    Anyway, thanks for the link. It’s a good one.

    BTW, in a parallel view of the same subject, I was at the LA Times Book Awards last night, and Virginia Tech naturally came up in the course of the awards. “Creative writing teachers will be talking about that situation for a long time to come…” was one of the things said.

    You got that right.

  7. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Listener…..agreed on all counts—re: trying kids as adults et al. Thanks for bringing that up.

  8. listener_on_the_sidelines Says:

    Celeste got here ahead of me, but I’ll post anyway.

    You know, being in front of a classroom of kids is hard, hard stuff. In my experience, it beats non-linear programming, fuzzy logic, and SAS on a UNIX platform. I’ve banged my head against a lot of immovable objects, but a classroom full of kids has got to be among the toughest thing I’ve done. Toss in the collective lunacies of the school board, the district office, the school’s administration, the parents, and your colleagues and it’s a wonder a teacher can even approach something that resembles teaching. This teacher has my sympathy. Given the circumstances, and the events of late, what the heck was she supposed to do? She’d probably been instructed (with great deliberation) to do exactly what she did; pass it up the line and let her superiors make the decision. And, from that point forward, the outcome was nearly assured. I hope the kid is exonerated. I hope his contract with the Marines is reinstated. I hope, in spite of the publicity, this kid can shrug it off, learn something about ‘audience,’ and move forward with his plans.

    Any more, any creative writing teacher that makes an assignment without pretty clear guidelines as to what’s expected is simply nuts. I won’t go far as to say that any teacher who doesn’t is setting kids up, but I think it’s time to pull back and acknowledge there are places in a person’s head you, as a teacher, simply don’t want to go. Why kids feel free to express themselves this way is likely generational, and something I can’t understand without a boatload of coaching. I could hope that the kind of ‘legal coaching via the web’ that Celeste has described might help kids figure some stuff out, but I despair of it making a difference in the kinds of impulsive, high on the moment, choices I’ve seen kids make.

    I keep thinking that something about kids is different now. But, I’m not sure that’s true. I was a teacher when one of our kids came to school and amused himself by flipping a knife up on another teacher’s desk. Had another kid walk into the school with a shot gun and ask for the vice principal. None of any of this amounted to a hill of beans. But the folks responding had a lot more discretion then,than they do now. And, it was a centralized school in a rural part of the world where everyone knew everyone, and everything about everyone. Perhaps our options for coping were different. A kid didn’t much care if they got parked in the principal’s office, but all, plus the kid, could tell you what would happen to the kid of the ‘old man’ found out. It was guaranteed ugly.

    It’s like there needs to be someplace, or something, that sits between the school and the judicial system. I loathe the way parents worry about a school not being in session for the oversight hassles that means for them as parent-employees. Schools should not be day-care centers. And, yet I wouldn’t wish women out of the labor force for reasons too obvious to state. Still, schools increasingly find themselves trying to arbitrate, and be accountable for, all kinds of things for which parents used to have primary responsibility. [I keep wondering how Cho got out of high school as disordered as he was.] There needs to be some middle space that is the catcher’s mitt for the circumstances in which this young man in Chicago, and the athlete-scholar-sexualized video star-now inmate Celeste has written about. It need not be either-or according to some inflexible policy or mandatory sentencing rule. Routinely, people do the damnedest of stuff, for the damnedest of reasons, and teenagers are simply ‘more so’ by virtue of their cognitive skills at different stages of development.

    Sorry… a rant in need of an editor.

  9. richard locicero Says:

    Well I’m afraid that Bill Bradley – the blogger and political consultant – is right that just about any measure, short of “Children’s Electic High-Chairs” would pass in initiatve form. And the madness doesn’t seem to be abating. I see where the governor and the legislature have agreed to a multi-billion dollar prison expansion plan to combat overcrowding and forestall a judicial takeover. No thought, I guess, to lowering the population by diverting non-violent offenders to some other form of punishment and/or restitution. No one in government wants to look “Soft on Crime” – and no one want to pay for it either by raising the taxes needed. No we’ll issue more bonds. That’s the state’s way of putting it on the credit card. But what happens when we max out the plastic?

    Well that’s where term limits are so handy. No one will be around to take the blame.

  10. listener_on_the_sidelines Says:

    rl, That has to be either Eclectic or Electric – I’m assuming you meant electric given the context. But, what a thought. Ugh! A Fry Baby wasn’t just a miniature version of a department store deep fat fryer after all. [sorry...]

    Yeah. I’ve begun to re-think this whole notion of term limits. One of those nifty ideas that sounded good in theory, but carries big time unintended consequences when put into practice.

    I thought there was a strong rehab component attached to this prison expansion initiative? Or, was that just noise?

  11. Celeste Fremon Says:

    One more rather interesting commentary on the issue of violence in students’ creative writing by the very smart and funny novelist, Todd Goldberg, who evidently wrote quite violent things when younger, and yet grew up to be an extremely nice, non-violent fellow. Here’s how it begins:

    “I spent a fair amount of time today reading about the mass killings at Virginia Tech and so wasn’t too terribly surprised when, a few hours into the afternoon’s news cycle, samples of the killer’s creative writing began appearing on the Internet. As soon as they identified Cho Seung Hui as an English major, I knew it was only a matter of time before some of his work came available for examination. Having read his two short plays — which apparently were found so disturbing that other students feared him from that alone, never mind his icy demeanor — I couldn’t help but wonder how much credence anyone should give anyone’s fictional ramblings going forward, because god knows my fiction in college was far more violent than Cho Sueng Hui’s and, in addition, I remember clearly the work of other students that was far more graphic, violent, misogynistic and none of those students, nor I, ended up killing three dozen people.

    “In my experience teaching writing at various institutions, I’ve encountered numerous students who, quite frankly, scared the shit out of me. Rarely was this the result of their writing. The scariest student I ever had was 6’6 and about 300 pounds, prone to loud outbursts of anger, charges of rampant racism for anyone who didn’t like his work and a general sense of menace generated by his mere respiration. He wrote love stories. They were actually fairly tender love stories, if completely incoherent and prone to bizarre diversions into world politics and issues of racism. But it was his demeanor outside of the workshop that frightened the entire class to the point that the entire class came to me one after another after his first workshop and asked me to just tell the student that his work was perfect for fear of what he might do if told his work was poor again.

    “Fortunately, the student never returned to class. Still, I think about this kid frequently. He was clearly unstable mentally but for the most part your hands are tied as a teacher…..”

    PS: Listener, I’ve been meaning to blog on the new prisons bill for days now. Will get to it early in the week. But about it having a strong rehab component…. Yes and No….but mostly No. (I realized that doesn’t say a hell of a lot. More when I post about it. But it’s definitely maddeningly short on the rehab side of things.)

  12. Peaches Says:

    Im from Chicago, and i never dreamed doing the right thing would become the wrong thing so viciously that there is no end in sight. Remember when it used to be against the law to be a criminal? Well in our area(60466) organized crime came to town to retaliate against me for various infractions.. One reporting corruption in the cook county court system and or about the cook county sheriff dept.
    and a huge coverup that involved covering up a trail of the plotters of 9-11-01 .
    This has involved in extensive illegally entry to the last four places I have lived. Extensive theft of personal property into BIG BUCKS, financial data, identity related data and credit but they were looking for something.. and still are.
    Running me out of town, county , state denying me housing, credit, vandalizing my car beyond repair, and then dropping off phoney mechanics and forcing the shop to them repair it. Stealing and tampering with complaints to local, state and federal agencies. I think they call this racketeering.
    Recreating a gestapo in metropolitan chicago area.
    Force hospitalizing me after I made an internal affairs complaint about THREE SPECIFIC SHERIFFS OF WHICH THOSE REPORTS WERE NEVER COMPLETED AND NEVER INVESTIGATED( filed in 2001 and 2002.. now its 07 and no investigation or firings)
    Harrassed me with false police stops, impounding my car, impounding me for hours to weeks by assignment of a poser NOT A REAL JUDGE in the REAL COUNTY COURT HOUSE DURING REGULAR BUSINESS HOURS, while REAL JUDGES STOOD BACK AND LET THEM USE THEIR BENCH AND ROBES.
    Having cook county sheriffs detectives pose as psychatrists and fabricate orders of medication at a real hospital.. and see me as the patient and ask ” WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR INTELLIGENCE INFORMATION FROM.. .” although I had gone to the FBI AND REPORTED SAME IN DETAIL AND IN PERSON.
    ( i didnt know psychatrists received intelligence data)
    HAving everyone in the whole wide world be blamed for something, but the one man who really knew.. was never even questioned.
    Its 7 years, two counties and two administrations later.. theyre STILL BOTHERING ME DAILY.
    Well.. what did i do wrong? I reported some corrupted cops taking money from WILLIAM J WARREN A COLD WELL BANKER REALATOR WHO OWNED MY BUILDING.. he paid them to do this to me, and then paid them to shut me up. He covered up corruption and a terror plot of 9-11-01 leading to his door and the US govt let him.
    NOw im crazy and their still on taxrolls..
    Peachsurprize or
    PARK FOREST IL 60466

  13. Peaches Says:

    In COOK COUNTY COURTS AT THE DALEY CENTER. YOU CAN BUY AN ILLEGAL EVICTION FOR ABOUT $2,000 in cash paid directly to the Judge. It fills a large brown paperbag during the lunch break. and then the judge makes his decision after passing some of the dough on to cover the paperwork. Watched it in person and so did a prominent attorney, in a mostly empty court room. Apparently they didnt want me to live anywhere as i tried to move out months before, but they hired women to pay those prospective landlords $100.00 more a month in rent, than the AD was asking for the rent. the greedy landlord took it and did not rent to me.. instead they stayed on the abandoned apt list at COOK COUNTY COURTS FOR FOUR MONTHS.. Guess thats a way to bring in revenue to COOK COUNTY..

  14. » Blog Archive » Cruel and Unusual (No, not Paris. The real thing) Says:

    [...] in prison because, at age 17, he engaged in consensual oral sex with a teenage girl at a party. [I originally posted about it here< /strong>.] After failing with other legal strategies, Wilson’s attorneys arguing in a habeas [...]

  15. » Blog Archive » BREAKING - Judge Orders Genarlow Wilson Freed Says:

    [...] [CLICK HERE FOR THE BACK STORY] The Georgia Legislature has since altered the law to make such an act a misdemeanor punishable only by up to one year in prison, with no sex offender registration. But the change was not retroactive, which meant Wilson remained in jail. [...]

  16. » Blog Archive » Friday Wrap-Up - Some of the Week’s GOTTA READ ‘EM Stories Says:

    [...] was denied bail while he awaits the next legal go-round in his case. As you’ll remember, Wilson was the 17-year-old who was given a 10-year sentence for having consensual oral sex with a girl two years younger. Although the law has been changed [...]

  17. » Blog Archive » Genarlow Wilson: SEX, LIES and PROSECUTORS Says:

    [...] Wilson has served nearly 29 months of his sentence. [For further backstory check my earlier posts here< /strong> and here [...]

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