Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Teen Sex and the State of Denial (Georgia)

In case you haven't heard, the state of Georgia has imprisoned a young man with excellent grades, the offer of a college scholarship for sports, and an otherwise promising future because, at the age of 17, he had oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. Though the sex was at a wild party and was video taped, it was nonetheless consensual. Had the boy, Genarlow Wilson, fucked the girl, he would not be in jail today. But because it was oral sex (Oh God!), he was convicted of an offense that carried a 10 year sentence.
Seeing the injustice, the Georgia legislature repealed that law and wrote a new one making such consensual sex a misdemeanor. They did not, however, make the new law retro-active. Wilson, already in jail for over two years, has remained there. A superior court judge, hearing Wilson's appeal, ruled the sentence of ten years cruel and unusual and overturned the conviction. He ordered Wilson freed.
However, Georgia's enlightened Attorney General, Thurbert Baker, ran to appeal that ruling, saying the judge didn't have that authority. So Wilson remains in jail.

Here are the editorials appearing in today's AJC by myself and by Cynthia Tucker, the paper's editor:

READERS WRITE: The Genarlow Wilson case

For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/20/07

Attorney general should be ashamed

The Genarlow Wilson case is a disgrace. Yes, the letter of the now-repealed law may indeed call for this once-promising young man's continued jailing, but the fact that his case has brought the repeal of a very bad law should enter the legal thinking, especially of state Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

The judge who ordered Wilson freed understands justice and fairness far better than Baker does. Consensual sex between a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old is not something rare or atrocious. That Baker wants to continue to punish Wilson for what is now in Georgia a misdemeanor, and was for Wilson an act of foolish, poor judgment, is a worse crime than the offense itself.


Cynthia Tucker goes into much more detail:

Baker can't blaze trails with caution

Published on: 06/20/07

When Thurbert Baker was elected in 1998, consolidating his hold on the office of attorney general, his victory was the state's triumph, another bit of proof that racism's chokehold on the Deep South had loosened. A moderate, consensus-building Democrat, Baker has won re-election twice since then, accumulating, along the way, a reservoir of respect, admiration and political capital.

But given the chance to spend some of that capital in a good cause, Baker has refused to do so. His response to the case of Genarlow Wilson — a young man imprisoned for 10 years for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl when he was 17 — has been deeply disappointing.


Cynthia Tucker

It was no great surprise that Baker declined to come to Wilson's defense after the Legislature failed earlier this year to pass a bill that would have released the young man from prison. That would have been uncharacteristic of the attorney general, who has worked hard at keeping his tenure free of controversy.

But last week, Baker chose to take a hard line against Wilson's release, filing an appeal to the ruling by Monroe County Superior Judge Thomas H. Wilson. (While Baker wrote in this newspaper that Wilson has been offered a deal that would give him first-offender status and no registration on the sex offender's list, Wilson's attorney, B.J. Bernstein, said Tuesday she had received no such formal offer.)

In a pointed, no-nonsense ruling on June 11, the judge ordered Wilson freed, calling his imprisonment "cruel and unusual." He pointed out that the Legislature had rewritten the law that ensnared Genarlow Wilson and his then-adolescent buddies, who drew stiff sentences for their behavior at a raunchy New Year's Eve Party in 2003 because of a statute aimed at older sexual predators. If Wilson committed the same offense today, he'd be charged with a misdemeanor.

Baker claims the judge overstepped his bounds in shortening Wilson's sentence, but that is a point of much debate. This much is clear: Baker would have been well within the law simply to ignore the judge's ruling, to let it stand. Had he done so, Wilson would have been freed.

Instead, the attorney general has hidden behind statutes, claiming he must follow the letter of the law. He knows better. The law and justice are not always compatible. Had Martin Luther King Jr. slavishly obeyed unjust laws, the history of this state — and Baker's own career — would have been quite different.

Besides, Baker was not elected to be a legal automaton. The fact is that prosecutors and attorneys general have enormous discretion, choosing which cases to pursue vigorously, which to pursue less so, and which injustices and malfeasances to ignore.

Indeed, Baker has ignored many other offenses. While other attorneys general — notably Eliot Spitzer, now governor of New York — were building resumes as crusading defenders of the public good, Baker hewed closely to a guarded and low-key approach, lest he offend powerful interests. As just one example, he didn't join the lawsuit against tobacco companies until 40 other states had done so.

Baker's years in public office, including several years in the General Assembly, suggest a man who is cautious by temperament — never one to rock the boat, much less lob grenades. And he no doubt grasps the political realities of being a black Democrat in a majority-white state controlled by Republicans. He clearly doesn't want to embolden his political rivals, who might accuse him of coddling a "criminal."

But what's the point of holding an office year after year if you won't use it to right a wrong? Exerting power on behalf of the powerless is the only honorable reason to amass power in the first place. Aren't there some principles worth the risk of political defeat? Where would we be if Lyndon Johnson had refused to push for the Civil Rights Act because it was too politically risky? Or if Ellis Arnall had not repealed the poll tax?

Baker's cautious approach might ensure him a very long tenure as Georgia's attorney general. But it won't earn him much of a legacy.

Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays.

Party carefully.


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