Video: Sentence overturned

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/26/2007 8:40:19 PM ET 2007-10-27T00:40:19

A former high school honor student and football star who had been imprisoned for having consensual oral sex with another teenager was released from prison Friday after Georgia's Supreme Court intervened in the case.

The court ruled 4-3 that Genarlow Wilson’s 10-year sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. Wilson served more than two years of the sentence.

Wilson's case led to widespread protests of heavy-handed justice. His supporters said race was one reason he received such a severe sentence, noting that he and the girl — both black — were only two years apart.

"I'm happy to see that we've got justice now," Wilson said after being released from the Al Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga. "I'm ready to piece back my life."

Wilson's supporters were jubilant.

"I never gave up hope in our judicial system, and I never gave up hope in all the prayers people sent out for us," said his mother, Juannessa Bennett.

Wilson said he was surprised to hear Friday morning on the radio that he would be freed. "It just felt unreal until I signed the paper," he said.

Wilson offered a word of caution to young people. “A few minutes of fun can be a lifetime,” he said. “There’s not going to be anymore parties for me for a while.”

Details of case
Wilson, now 21, was convicted of aggravated child molestation following a 2003 New Year’s Eve party at a Douglas County hotel room where he was videotaped having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. He was 17 at the time.

Wilson was acquitted of raping another 17-year-old girl at the party.

The 1995 law Wilson violated was changed in 2006 to make oral sex between teens close in age a misdemeanor, similar to the law regarding teen sexual intercourse. But the state Supreme Court later upheld a lower court’s ruling which said that the 2006 law could not be applied retroactively.

Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote in the majority opinion that the changes in the law “represent a seismic shift in the legislature’s view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants.”

Sears wrote that the severe punishment makes “no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment” and that Wilson’s crime did not rise to the “level of adults who prey on children.”

Supporters: 'A long time coming'
State Attorney General Thurbert Baker said he accepts Friday’s ruling.

Baker said he hopes the ruling 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 in this case.”

Wilson said he plans to return to school and sports and possibly study sociology. Wilson was being recruited by several colleges as a defensive back when he was sent away to prison.

For now, he said he was looking forward to spending time with relatives.

Wilson’s supporters were jubilant.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat. “Each day that this young man spent in prison was a day too long.”

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who is visiting Georgia this week, called for an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences.

State lawmakers announced they had raised $4,000 toward a scholarship fund for Wilson, and Jackson promised another $5,000 from the Rainbow/PUSH organization.

‘Grave miscarriage of justice’
The state Supreme Court had turned down Wilson’s appeal of his conviction and sentence, but the justices agreed to hear the state’s appeal of a Monroe County judge’s decision to reduce Wilson’s sentence to 12 months and free him. That judge had called the 10-year sentence a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

Dissenting justices wrote that the state Legislature expressly stated that the 2006 change in the law was not intended to affect any crime prior to that date.

They said Wilson’s sentence could not be cruel and unusual because the state Legislature decided that Wilson could not benefit from subsequent laws reducing the severity of the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

They called the decision an “unprecedented disregard for the General Assembly’s constitutional authority.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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