By Matthew Bigg via Reuters:
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Georgia man sentenced to 10 years in jail without parole for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17 walked free on Friday after the state's top court ordered his early release.
Genarlow Wilson was greeted by his family as he left the Burruss Correctional Training Facility in Monroe County, Georgia, after serving two years, eight months in jail in a case that sparked a national campaign on his behalf.
"I was pretty confused for the most part (in jail) not knowing what to expect with all the (legal) disappointments we dealt with early on but I am finally happy to see that we have got justice now," Wilson told reporters.
He described what happened as a "learning experience" and said his first priority was to return to education.
Wilson was given a mandatory 10 years after he was convicted in 2005 of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex at a New Year's Eve party in a hotel in Georgia. The act was captured on an amateur video.
In 2006, the law was changed to make a crime such as Wilson's a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum one-year sentence and no entry into the child sex registry.
In a split decision on Friday, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the ruling of a lower court judge that the sentence constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" banned under the U.S. Constitution."Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children," Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote in a 4-3 majority opinion.
"For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," the opinion said.
Georgia's attorney general, Thurbert Baker, who challenged the lower court's ruling in June and thus kept Wilson in jail, said he accepted Friday's decision.
"I hope the court's decision will ... put an end to this issue as a matter of contention in the hearts and minds of concerned Georgians and others across the country who have taken such a strong interest," Baker said in a statement.
The case sparked legal challenges and a campaign led by civil rights leaders including Al Sharpton and Joseph Lowery who argued that, while Wilson's deed was wrong, the sentence was excessive, especially given that the law had been changed.
They also argued the sentence would ruin the life of a teenager who had a good school record, was an athlete on his high school football team and had no criminal record.
"It's a banner day for Georgia because clearly this was a miscarriage of justice. ... This time the state has come through with flying colors," Lowery said in an interview.
"Prosecutors need to be more just and sensitive, less ambitious in their decisions," he said.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice George Carley said that when the 2006 law was passed the Georgia legislature said it should not be applied retroactively.