10-21-2016  2:53 pm      •     
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FORSYTH, Ga. (AP) -- During more than two years in state prison, Genarlow Wilson was confident that he would find justice and be set free.
On Friday, the hopes of the young man who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with another teenager finally became reality: The state's highest court ruled that his sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
"I'd seen it coming," Wilson said of his release. "But I didn't exactly know when."
Wilson, with his hands in his pockets, wore dark blue dress pants as he left prison. His attorney, B.J. Bernstein, said she had carried them around in the trunk of her SUV for months hoping for his release.
He shared big smiles with his mother, Juannessa Bennett, his 9-year-old sister Jaiya and Bernstein.
Wilson said he first heard about the court's decision from another inmate who said he'd heard it on the radio. But Wilson said he didn't want to believe it until he heard the decision himself.
His 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.
Wilson's supporters, whom the young man thanked, 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 plans to continue school, where he would like to resume participation in sports and become a sociology major.
He said he also wants to help other teens, offering this initial advice: "They should be very hesitant before they join certain crowds and make certain decisions."
In its 4-3 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court noted that state lawmakers later scrapped the law that required a minimum 10-year prison term.
That change, the court said, represented "a seismic shift in the legislature's view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants."
The justices also said Wilson's sentence made "no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment," and his crime did not rise to the "level of adults who prey on children."
After he was imprisoned, Wilson became the subject of prominent editorials and national news broadcasts. His sentence was denounced even by members of the jury that convicted him and the author of the 1995 law that put him in prison.
Supporters including former President Jimmy Carter said the case raised troubling questions about race and the justice system.
Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation following a 2003 New Year's Eve party in a hotel room where he was videotaped having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl.
Wilson, who was 17 at the time, was acquitted of raping another 17-year-old girl at the party. The man who prosecuted Wilson, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, said he disagreed with the decision, but he respects the court "as the final arbiter."
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 Wilson's mother, Juannessa Bennett.
Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, said: "Each day that this young man spent in prison was a day too long."
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 ruling that said the 2006 law could not be applied retroactively.
The high court had turned down Wilson's appeal of his conviction and sentence, but the justices agreed to hear the state's appeal of a 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."
Wilson said he plans to return to school and sports and possibly study sociology. For now, he was looking forward to spending time with relatives.
"I feel I've been away from them long enough," he said. "At times, we've dealt with adversity. Now my family, we finally get to deal with happiness."

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