ATLANTA -- A young man sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual sex with a teenager must wait weeks more behind bars while the state Supreme Court decides his fate.
The state Supreme Court is expect to issue two key rulings after hearing arguments in the case of Genarlow Wilson before a courtroom packed with his supporters.
Wilson's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein, told the court his client's decade-long mandatory sentence violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Bernstein also called for Wilson's release on bond while appeals are pending.
"Every day that a defendant spends in jail is a precious day in their life," she told the seven justices.
Wilson, 21, was convicted of aggravated child molestation following a 2003 New Year's Eve Party at a Douglas County hotel room where he was shown on videotape having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. He was 17 at the time.
The state Supreme Court had declined 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. The judge had called the 10-year sentence a "grave miscarriage of justice."
The long punishment prompted angry protests and led the state last year to change the 1995 sentencing law used in his case. The new law makes it a misdemeanor rather than a felony for teens close in age to have oral sex, similar to the law regarding teen sexual intercourse. But the Supreme Court ruled the change could not be applied retroactively.
Attorneys for the state argued that the order to free Wilson, if upheld, could be used to help free some 1,300 child molesters from Georgia prison.
"We urge you to look beyond the confines of this case," Senior Assistant Attorney General Paula Smith told the court.
Outside the courtroom, about a dozen Black lawmakers and civil rights leaders defended Wilson, who is Black.
"Where's the justice? That's the question," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "When the law doesn't serve justice, that's when the Supreme Court should intervene."