Genarlow Wilson will leave the bitterness to others. For the moment, just being able to sleep in his own bed, get up in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator and being able to be with his family is satisfaction enough.
“When I got the news, I was ecstatic at just being able to finally walk out of the prison knowing that I was free and I had a new chance at life,” Wilson told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Monday.
It was just three days ago, after two years of public outcry over the 10-year sentence he was serving for having consensual oral sex at a party when he was a teen, that he was freed from prison by order of the Georgia Supreme Court.
Noting that Georgia law had been changed to make Wilson’s crime punishable by up to only a year in prison, the court called the 10-year sentence “extraordinarily harsh.” Wilson was suddenly a free man.
“It was an awesome feeling, just being able to hug my mother and my sister,” Wilson, now 21, told Vieira.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie and speaking from his home in Powder Springs, Ga., with his mother, Juanessa, at his side, Wilson didn’t complain about losing two years of his life. Instead, Wilson said that he wants to help other kids who might be tempted to make the same dangerous decisions he made.
“This is a whole new beginning,” he had said on Sunday after attending church. “I have fresh breath, a new life. All I can do is start new today.”
Lessons learnedWith Vieira, he spoke mostly of the lessons he learned and his determination to help other kids learn from his mistake.
“I definitely got in a situation a boy, and I’m coming out a man,” Wilson said. “I made very stupid decisions.”
He and his mother were both outwardly calm, as if they were discussing whether to plant hydrangeas or geraniums in the garden.
“We’re still kind of numb, and it’s still soaking in,” his mother said. “We haven’t really had time to let it set in. It also feels like he never left. I guess I was in a state of denial.”
But, she concluded, “It feels good.”
“It definitely taught me valuable lessons,” Wilson said of his experience. “It’s something I want to share. I plan to help educating teens on sex and teaching them the new laws. I feel I have a testimony to share with them. I want to just help them make better decisions.”
On New Year’s Eve, 2003, Wilson was 17, a top student in his high school and an outstanding athlete who was widely recruited by colleges, including Columbia University.
Wilson went to a party attended by a bunch of kids in a hotel room.
There was alcohol and drugs — and a video camera. A 17-year-old girl at the party who was taped having what appeared to be consensual sex claimed the next morning that she had been raped.
Police investigating the complaint found used condoms, signs of drinking and the video camera, which also contained footage of Wilson being offered and receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl.
Georgia has a so-called “Romeo and Juliet law,” which treats sex between minors differently than sex between an adult and a minor. But at the time, the law covered only sexual intercourse. Oral sex with a 15-year-old was still treated as a felony even though Wilson was a minor himself. It was punishable by a minimum 10-year prison sentence with no chance of parole.
With the video as evidence, Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation in February 2005. The sentence was so harsh that some of the jurors who convicted him professed shock to reporters after the penalty was imposed.
The case sparked outrage and debate across the nation and the world.
Issue of race?
Because Wilson is African-American, many said that his race contributed to the way he was treated by the criminal justice system. The Rev. Jesse Jackson lobbied for Wilson’s release, as did the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Last year, the Georgia legislature changed the law to reduce what Wilson did to a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail, but the law was not made retroactive. Those convicted before the change had to continue to serve their sentences.
But the Georgia Supreme Court ruled on Friday in a 4-3 decision that Wilson had been punished enough. Justice Leah Ward Sears, who was part of the majority who voted to release Wilson, wrote: “Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children … For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinary harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime.”
The high court reduced his crime to a misdemeanor and his penalty to one year in jail with credit for the two years he’s already served. He will not have to register as a sex offender; he’s a free man.
“It definitely helped me mature,” he said of his experience. “I said I’m not bitter because I‘ve learned how to turn negative images to positive. I plan on doing a lot of the positive things. I want to help others, talk to a lot of youth, troubled teens, try to help them learn from my situation.”
He said he will work with My5th.org, a nonprofit organization established by his attorney, B.J. Bernstein, to teach young people about their constitutional rights, including the Fifth Amendment protection against incriminating themselves.
Wilson made no excuses. “I don’t condone that type of behavior,” he said of what he did at that party nearly four years ago. “At the time, I was just trying to have fun. If you think about those things, if you know about the consequences that come along with them, you won’t do them — you’ll think twice.”