Southern Justice: Travesty Squared in Georgia

You’ve probably heard about this case but it’s new to me.

Genarlow Wilson is standing on a threshold all right, at the end of the last hall of Burruss Correctional Training Center, an hour and a half south of Atlanta. He’s just a few feet from the mechanical door that closes with a goosebump-raising whurr and clang. Three and a half years after he received that letter, he’s wearing a blue jacket with big, white block letters. They read: STATE PRISONER.

He’s 20 now. Just two years into a 10-year sentence without possibility of parole, he peers through the thick glass and bars, trying to catch a glimpse of freedom. Outside, guard towers and rolls of coiled barbed wire remind him of who he is.

Once, he was the homecoming king at Douglas County High. Now he’s Georgia inmate No. 1187055, convicted of aggravated child molestation.

When he was a senior in high school, he received oral sex from a 10th grader. He was 17. She was 15. Everyone, including the girl and the prosecution, agreed she initiated the act. But because of an archaic Georgia law, it was a misdemeanor for teenagers less than three years apart to have sexual intercourse, but a felony for the same kids to have oral sex.

Afterward, the state legislature changed the law to include an oral sex clause, but that doesn’t help Wilson. In yet another baffling twist, the law was written to not apply to cases retroactively, though another legislative solution might be in the works. The case has drawn national condemnation, from the “Free Genarlow Wilson Now” editorial in The New York Times to a feature on Mark Cuban’s HDNet.

“It’s disgusting,” Cuban wrote to ESPN in an e-mail. “I can not see any way, shape or form that the interests of the state of Georgia are served by throwing away Genarlow’s youth and opportunity to become a vibrant contributor to the state. All his situation does is reinforce some unfortunate stereotypes that the state is backward and misgoverned. No one with a conscience can look at this case and conclude that justice has been served.”

It’s not the stereotype that’s unfortunate, Mr Cuban, it’s the accuracy of it. Georgia is still mired in Southern racial stereotypes and afflicted with a debilitating affection for frontier justice. Sal Marinello of Blogcritics Magazine takes the story to the next level: a DA who insisted on prosecuting a case that never should have gone to trial because the defendant pissed him off when he wouldn’t accept a plea bargain.

Fast forward to the trial where the Douglas County District Attorney’s rape case had pretty much fallen apart. And Wilson refused to plea to anything, especially since a guilty plea to a sexual molestation charge would make him a sex offender and force him to move out of his family home, because he had a kid sister.

But the videotape evidence backed up the charge of aggravated sexual molestation. It didn’t matter that the 15-year old “victim” was the initiator of the act. But what did matter to DA David McDade and Prosecutor Eddie Barker is that a girl under the age of consent gave oral sex, which under the letter of the Georgia law made this interlude an act of aggravated child molestation.

It didn’t matter that the archaic Georgia law says it’s only a misdemeanor for teens less than three years apart in age to have intercourse, but a felony if oral sex is involved.

All McDade and Barker wanted – still want, actually – is for Wilson to admit to something that he didn’t do, want him to admit to being something that he clearly is not.

Georgia, parts of which have worked hard to erase its old image as Deep South racist, “hick”, “trailer trashed”, and basically retarded, has just gone out of its way once again to prove to the nation that all those things it’s been telling us were in the past, over, dead, remain in fact very alive and in charge.

DA McDade wanted a plea bargain, didn’t get it, and got pissy when he had to actually try a case he didn’t want to try. He used his power, essentially, to make his pissyness the source of revenge for being thwarted. That, unfortunately (to borrow Mr Cuban’s word again), can happen anywhere, not just in Georgia. Becky at Just a Girl in short shorts talking about whatever used to be a prosecutor and explains what probably happened.

Most people do not do this type of work [prosecutions-MA]for long. Some, like me, just get sick of the whole thing. Most, after a few years, can make tons more money by moving to the private side. However, there are some who pretty much make a career out of it. Now some of these have the best of intentions. But all too many stay because, even though the dough is a lot better in a private firm, you do not have the opportunity to lop off heads on a regular basis.

And that is what this is all about. In legal parlance it is called “prosecutorial discretion”. A prosecutor does not have to file every violation that comes to her attention. In fact, she is not even supposed to do that. It is expected common sense will prevail.

First of all, Mr. Wilson should never have been charged. As I understand it, the girl was not only not coerced, she initiated the whole thing. Their ages and relationship was not the kind of thing the statutory rape laws were designed to prevent. And, even if the stick up his ass prosecutor had felt a law had been broken, and he had a public duty to do something, then I am certain there would have been some stupid thing like sexual mischief that could have been charged, rather than rape.

But, here we also have a motivation that results in unfair results in courts across the nation everyday. Prosecutors will tell defendants if they plead guilty to a lesser crime (or even the crime charged) this will result in a lesser sentence than if they go to trial. Judges not only go along with this, they engage in heavy arm-twisting with the, usually underpaid and overworked, defense lawyers. They do this because they are lazy. (emphasis added)

And overworked and overwhelmed by a largely Republican-built legal system that mandates prison for technical offenses like this and deliberately tries to remove prosecutorial and judicial discretion from playing any role in sentencing. But Becky’s giving the Georgia legislature way too much credit here:

At lot of people are saying this law was a result of a hick Georgia legislature. That is not really fair. This impression may come from an understandable reluctance to spend much time watching the boring lawmaking process. The Georgia legislature did not sit down one day and decide that kids doing bjs was much more serious than doing the full deal.

Laws are passed piece meal. Amendments are almost always not read by the lawmaker. And they never have a full understanding of the effect of the legislation. Our laws are a hodge podge of stuff crafted over a couple hundred years. Usually a bill will affect several sections. And the full impact of any changes are not realized until someone like young Genarlow comes around.

No. A law that was passed in response to this case and then deliberately “written to not apply to cases retroactively” is not an accidental law or the result of confusion. The Republican-dominated Georgia legislature, like those in other Republican-dominated Southern states (Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and so on and so on), was simply doing what is SOP for them: admitting wrong-doing while at the same time refusing to do anything to correct their mistake.

Texas has been infamous for years, first under W and now under Rick Perry, for actually admitting the innocence of wrongly convicted prisoners and then refusing to release them or even grant new trials. The incredible excuse for this insane behavior is “the law is the law” – these defendants have been convicted so the law says they’re guilty, and even though we know they aren’t, we ain’t gonna lift one day-amn pinkie to free them. Let ’em rot.

It is not an accident that the overwhelming percentage of such callously-treated defendants are black and the overwhelming percentage of callous prosecutors/legislators/governors are white, just as is the case with Wilson: a black teenager, a white DA and prosecutor.

If the South really wants to escape from being tarred with Mr Cuban’s “unfortunate stereotypes”, they’re going to have to do a whole lot better than this with their justice systems.

And to do that, they’re going to have to start electing Democrats again.

One response to “Southern Justice: Travesty Squared in Georgia

  1. Pingback: Genralow Wilson Ordered Freed « Mick Arran

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