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Ga. Supreme Court Hears Teen Sex Case

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2007/07/20 18:01

The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments Friday morning on a pair of appeals in the closely watched Genarlow Wilson case, though no ruling was expected immediately. The courtroom was packed for the hearing, and arguments were broadcast live over the Internet. The hearing came after justices decided earlier this month to speed up the process in the case of Wilson, the Douglas County man imprisoned for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. Wilson's attorneys arguing his 10-year prison sentence is cruel and unusual punishment.

The justices are considering two appeals in the case.

Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker is appealing a Monroe County Superior Court judge's decision to reduce Wilson's felony conviction to a misdemeanor and free him from prison. Baker said the judge overstepped his authority when he granted Wilson's motion last month.

Following the Monroe County judge's decision, Wilson's attorneys requested he be released on bond pending Baker's appeal, but on June 27, the trial court in Douglas County denied the request. Wilson's attorneys have appealed that decision.

B.J. Bernstein, Wilson's attorney, addressed the bond issue first at Friday's hearing, arguing for 10 minutes that her client should be granted bond while his case is under appeal.

"Every day that a defendant spends in jail is a precious day in their life," Bernstein told the justices. Bernstein said that in the past 10 days, "two clients of mine died in prison."

Bernstein argued that the trial court, in refusing bond, improperly applied the criminal appeal bond statute when it should have applied the habeas bond statute, since the Monroe County judge had ruled on a writ of habeas corpus, determining that Wilson had the right to make a claim of cruel and unusual punishment.

However, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, the original prosecutor on Wilson's case, countered in his time before the justices that state law is clear that "no appeal bond shall be granted to any person who is convicted of a list of crimes, and aggravated child molestation is included in that list."

"It's not vague. It's not gray. It's not subject to interpretation," McDade said. "It is the plain letter of the law that applies in this case."

In its appeal of the reduction of the felony conviction to a misdemeanor, the state has argued that the ruling could open the door for many other sexual criminals to have their sentences reduced.

Wilson's attorneys argued that such fears are invalid and do not justify maintaining such a harsh sentence for consensual teen sex.

Video cameras and still photographers lined the walls well before the arguments began. Outside, satellite trucks and Georgia State Patrol cars were parked all along the street, and security was high. Officers were posted all around the building and on the floor where the Supreme Court meets.

Former state Rep. Matthew Towery, the author of the 1995 law Wilson was charged with violating, submitted a friend of the court brief supporting his release.

"The General Assembly never intended for the Child Protection Act's harsh felony sentences designed to punish adults who prey on children to be used to punish consensual sexual acts between teenagers close in age," Towery's brief said.

The state Legislature in 2006 changed the law, making oral sex between teens close in age a misdemeanor. The state Court of Appeals ruled that the new law could not be applied retroactively and the state Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

Bernstein argued in her legal brief that the move by state lawmakers to change the law marked a "tectonic shift in how Georgia views voluntary consensual teen sex and its punishment."

"The new reality is that teen sexual experimentation is commonplace in an era where the media bombards teens with sexual imagery," she wrote.

Bernstein said it is extremely rare in Georgia for lawmakers to pass legislation softening punishment, especially for an emotionally charged crime like child molestation.

But the state countered that it is well established that criminals are subject to the penalty that is in place when they violate the law. To begin to apply legislative changes retroactively would invite chaos and have a far-reaching effect throughout the criminal justice system, Baker argued.

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