A Georgia man serving 10 years in prison and labeled a sex offender for life for having consensual oral sex at age 17 with a 15-year-old girl says he's sorry for his behavior but doesn't believe his punishment fit the crime.
"I don't condone that kind of behavior. I made a mistake, and I feel like I'm very apologetic," Genarlow Wilson, now 21, said during an exclusive interview Friday on TODAY. "This whole time I have been 'fessing up to my mistake ... I'm just asking them to give me another chance at life, a fair chance.''
Wilson, who was interviewed by telephone from the Al Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira that he is buoyed by growing public support for his plight and a judge's decision Monday to overturn the former honor student's conviction and sentence.
But within hours of Monday's ruling, Georgia's attorney general announced he would appeal.
"It was very disappointing to hear, but at the same time I still feel good about it, the judge's ruling," said Wilson, "He basically said that everything we were fighting for, .... In his ruling he went along with it. It was a huge step forward, but also we went backward with the appeal."
On Monday, Monroe County Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Wilson (no relation) vacated the conviction and substituted it with a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of just 12 months in jail. Judge Wilson also ruled that Genarlow Wilson would not have to register as a sex offender.
"The fact that Genarlow Wilson has spent two years in prison for what is now classified as a misdemeanor, and without assistance from this Court, will spend eight more years in prison, is a grave miscarriage of justice," the judge said.
A short time later, Wilson's mother, Juanessa Bennet, was in the office of defense attorney B.J. Bernstein when the first pages of the 13-page ruling ordering Wilson's release began to churn through a fax machine.
But just an hour and a half later the joy was replaced with other emotions. Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker announced the same afternoon that he would appeal the ruling, if only to protect the rule of law as it was written when Wilson was charged, tried, convicted and sentenced.
"I see the word 'release,' I told [Bennet]. She was so happy," said Bernstein, who also appeared on TODAY. "All of the time I've worked with her, I've never seen her like this. Then to have it taken away 90 minutes later, it was just devastating."
Baker has since said he will not oppose bond for Wilson pending a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court. A bond hearing will be held next month. In the meantime, Wilson languishes in prison and has a lot of time to think about everything that has happened to him.
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"How has prison changed you the last two years?" Vieira asked. "You went in there an honors student and athlete, and two years later you are a different person. You must be."
"I feel like I am more open. A lot of the things I've been through forced me to grow up more quickly than a lot of people my age have," Wilson said. "I'm really just ready to get back into society and prove to everyone I am worthy of success."
If he is fortunate enough to go free sometime soon, Wilson said he has learned many lessons and plans to share them.
"Basically, it will really take me a lifetime to explain to you what I've learned over this whole ordeal," he said. "I definitely feel like I have a strong testimony to tell other people. If I can help them learn from my mistakes, I think they will."
Wilson acknowledges that his conduct with the young women at that New Year's Eve party four years ago showed poor judgment, and in the case of the minor, was illegal. And the fact that Georgia's legislature has since passed a so-called "Romeo and Juliet" statute to keep other teenagers from receiving harsh sentences for consensual sex vindicates his claims an injustice was done, not his conduct.
Georgia's Supreme Court will hear arguments on the attorney general's appeal of this week's ruling in October.
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