ATLANTA -- A former high school football star who became a national symbol for the extremes of getting tough on sex offenders was ordered released from prison yesterday by Judge Thomas H. Wilson, who called his mandatory 10-year sentence for consensual teen sex "a grave miscarriage of justice." But the joy felt by Genarlow Wilson's family rapidly turned to disappointment as Georgia's Attorney General Thurbert Baker announced he would appeal, a move that will keep the honor student behind bars for now.
Nothing could have prepared Wilson for what happened as he neared the end of his days in high school. He became prom prince, homecoming king - and a child molester.
A 17-year-old star football player and honor student, Wilson was arrested on the day he was supposed to take his SATs after police saw a video showing him receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl at a 2003 New Year's Eve party.
Under Georgia law, the encounter constituted "aggravated child molestation." The girl said the act was consensual, but in February 2005, Wilson was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a lifetime on Georgia's sex offender registry.
The following year, Georgia legislators changed the law to make most consensual sex between teenagers a misdemeanor rather than a felony, with a sentence of no more than 12 months in jail.
The odds of Wilson's release appeared to be long. When Georgia legislators revised the law, they declined to make it retroactive so it would apply to Wilson. Then the Georgia Supreme Court rejected his motion for an appeal on the basis that legislators had chosen not to make the law retroactive. This year, a bill that would have allowed judges to review earlier sentences stalled in the Georgia Senate.
The mandatory sentence provoked an outcry from members of the jury that convicted Wilson. Even the author of the 1995 law responsible for imprisoning him held a news conference urging legislators to pass a bill allowing judges to review cases involving consensual teenagers.
"No one in their right mind ever thought a prosecutor would take that bill and use it in such a way," said Matt Towery, the Republican former state representative who sponsored the bill.
The videotape was found in a hotel room after a 17-year-old girl reported that she had been gang raped. In the video, that girl appeared severely intoxicated.
Wilson was charged with rape of the 17-year-old and aggravated child molestation of the 15-year-old, but the jury acquitted him of the rape charge. Jenny Jarvie writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this report.