He admits he wasn't perfect. Far from it. He drank. He smoked pot. He'd been sexually active since he was 13. And a month or so after that final playoff game, he and some buddies were plotting a New Year's Eve bash. His mama heard them whispering in his bedroom that afternoon. She knew kids whispering usually meant trouble, so she went in and looked those boys up and down.
"Don't do anything stupid," she warned.
Genarlow Wilson and his friends checked into the Days Inn right off Interstate 20. At some point in the night, according to court documents and evidence presented at trial, some girls came over to party with them. Bourbon and marijuana were consumed. One of the young men turned on a video camera.
Later in the evening, a 17-year-old girl began to have sex with the young men, first in the bathroom, then on the bed. Genarlow is captured on tape appearing to have sex with the girl from behind. Her hand is clearly visible on the floor supporting herself. Witnesses said she was a willing participant.
The next morning, the girl awoke in a stupor, wearing nothing but her socks. She called her mother and said she had been raped. Police came to the room after sunrise and took the revelers in for questioning. Genarlow had already gone home -- he didn't want to miss curfew -- but the video camera remained.
On tape, the cops saw a 15-year-old girl, a 10th-grader, performing oral sex on a partygoer and, after finishing with him, turning and performing the act on Genarlow. She was the instigator, according to her mother's testimony. Problem was, the girl was a year under the age of consent. Local prosecutors called the act aggravated child molestation, following the letter and not the spirit of the law, which was designed to prosecute pedophiles.
A week later, on the first day of the second semester of his senior year, the police went to the school and arrested the boys. Wilson was charged with four felonies and taken from the building in handcuffs. Not long before, he'd been in the newspaper for being all-conference in football. Now, he was on the front page, branded a rapist and child molester.
"It was like I had everything one day," he says, "and the next day I didn't have anything."
For the next eight months, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, who likes to wear an American flag on his lapel and play to his law-and-order-loving base, dangled plea bargains. The other boys didn't want to risk a jury, and one by one each took an offer and went to prison, including the other football player arrested, Narada Williams, who accepted five years with the possibility of parole.
In Douglas County, according to law professors following the case, admitting sins and begging forgiveness -- not insisting on your innocence -- is the road to mercy. Williams is already out of jail, in part because McDade wrote a letter to the parole board, praising Williams for being the first to plead guilty and "take his medicine." As for Wilson, McDade called him a "martyr" in the media.
The Saturday before it began, his last weekend as a free man, Wilson tried out for a local semi-pro football team. He wanted to be that other person once more, the one who could outrun all of life's problems. For two glorious hours, he sprinted and jumped and dived. When it was over, the coaches were impressed. They traded cell phone numbers, just another opportunity that would soon pass him by.
Two days later, in February 2005, Genarlow Wilson walked into a courtroom. Two charges already had been dropped, and it was clear from the first witness that the rape charge wouldn't stick either. The aggravated child molestation, though, was on tape. Genarlow tried to defend himself against the assigned prosecutor, Eddie Barker.
"Sir," Wilson told him, "you don't even know me. I understand you're just doing your job, sure, but I mean, how would you feel if you were my age and you were put on the stand with these serious charges at this young age? I have a little sister. Why would I molest anyone, sir?"
"I'm not on trial here, Mr. Wilson," Barker said. "You're the one who did these acts, not me."
The day before the trial was expected to end, in the last night he'd ever spend at his home, Wilson went to a church down the street and asked the preacher to pray with him. He awoke early the next morning. He knotted his tie carefully and went to the courthouse. The trial finished that afternoon, and the jury came back with "not guilty" on the rape but "guilty" on the aggravated child molestation.
He looked at the forewoman. She was crying, seeming to understand they'd just undone a promising future. Indeed, when the jurors found out there was a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, several were incensed. The prosecution told them to write a letter, then moved on to the next case.
Genarlow Wilson put his head in his hands and wept.
Deputies yanked him from his seat. Not long after, Prisoner 1187055 found himself in the predawn darkness, riding in a bus, surrounded not by his teammates but by murderers, thieves and rapists. Some were headed to the penitentiary for the second or third time.
A scared kid looked out the window as the bus chewed up pavement. He didn't know what it was going to be like, only that he didn't want to go.
Doing Hard Time
Wilson moves to the rhythm of the prison now, up early with the shift change, tidying his cell, sitting down to rest before chow, wearing white pants with a blue stripe. It has been 23 months.
These walls and bars haven't taken his youth, though. Not yet. When he smiles, it's the same one from that old photo on his mom's mantel. Bennett wonders how her son has managed to keep that light in such a dark place and how much longer he can hold out.
With nothing but time, he has taken stock of his old life. He doesn't like the person he was back then, the cocky star athlete with the world as his yo-yo. When he thinks about the kid on that videotape, with a Pittsburgh Pirates hat cocked just so, he cringes.
"It's embarrassing to me," he says. "You see yourself. ... 'Man, I acted like that?' "
He has followed his appeals from behind bars. He watched as the state legislature changed the law that put him there, then declined to make it retroactive, for reasons that still boggle the mind. That was a dark day.
He watched as B.J. Bernstein, his new attorney, filed a petition for writ of certiorari, asking the Georgia Supreme Court to review the case. The petition was denied, then set aside, then denied again, then appealed, then denied again. Those were darker days.
The first time the Supreme Court voted on Genarlow's case, it was 4-3. The four judges who voted against the black teen were white. The three judges who voted for him were black.
"I don't understand the Supreme Court," Bennett says. "Do these people not have hearts? Can they not look and see this isn't right?"
In its written decision, the Supreme Court called Wilson a "promising young man," a paragraph that he has read a thousand times. All the e-mails Bernstein gets in support of him, he has those, too. He reads them over and over, reminding himself that he once had a future and, one day, might have it again. It's not easy.
Other people's lives have moved on.
He has corresponded with Williams, his co-defendant and old high school teammate. Williams is enrolled in college now.
Wilson sat in prison and watched Calvin Johnson, the guy he once covered, become the best college receiver in the country and a soon-to-be millionaire.
"That has made my ambitions higher," Wilson says. "That makes me want to succeed even more because I don't want to be left behind."
The Halls of Power
In Atlanta, Bernstein makes her rounds at the state capitol. It's the first day of the legislative session and men in power ties click their wingtips over marble floors, lobbyists back-slapping each other in their little groups.
"He's sitting in jail," she says. "He's in jail every day they're sitting around chatting."
When Bernstein met Wilson, who had a different attorney for the trial, she saw that light in his eyes and didn't want prison to extinguish it. Truth is, she's a rescuer. One of her cats she found on the interstate. She stopped her car in the rain on a six-lane highway to save it. In her heart, she wants to save the world, starting with Genarlow Wilson. That means working pro bono, even as every small check the firm earns goes straight into the operating account. That means figuring out this strange power-brokers' dance.
It's frustrating work. No one involved believes Wilson should be in jail for 10 years.
The prosecutors don't.
The Supreme Court doesn't.
The legislature doesn't.
The 15-year-old "victim" doesn't.
The forewoman of the jury doesn't.
Privately, even prison officials don't.
Yet no one will do anything to free him, passing responsibility around like a hot potato. The prosecutors say they were just doing their job. The Supreme Court says it couldn't free him because the state legislature decreed the new law didn't apply to old cases, even though this case was the entire reason the new law was passed. One possible explanation is that Bernstein, an admitted neophyte at backroom dealing, simply didn't know enough politics to insist on the provision. That haunts her.
"I understand the injustice in the justice system," Jones says, "and when I heard about Genarlow and started studying what had happened, I said, 'This is a wrong that must be righted.' Everyone agrees that justice is not being served."
Afterward, Bernstein can file a writ of habeas corpus, which could get him out of jail, but those are legal Hail Marys. She's a true believer, but if the legislature denies this latest attempt, she knows she might not be able to save Genarlow Wilson. Until it's over, nothing's off the table. Not even simple positive thinking. Sitting at a midtown-Atlanta Chinese restaurant on a lunch break from all the political wrangling, she picked up her fortune cookie, smiled thinly and said, "Gimme a good one: Genarlow will be free."
She's still working every angle, from the capital to cookies, riding up an elevator to the 53rd floor of an Atlanta high-rise to see David Balser, the attorney who got Marcus Dixon out of jail. The Dixon case was similar: As an 18-year-old, he had sex with a 15-year-old girl and was sentenced to 10 years before the conviction was overturned.
Sitting in a conference room overlooking Stone Mountain, Balser listens. The light shines off his gold cufflinks, the high-thread-count shirt hanging perfectly off his shoulders. He's got a little salt in his pepper and a Virgin Islands tan. They talk media strategy. They talk last-ditch plans, including a constitutional amendment returning pardon power to the governor. When they're done, Balser walks Bernstein to the elevator.
"I think less is more, B.J.," he says. "You've got to get him out and solve the world's problems after that. Just get him out."
"I'm trying," she says.
"I have faith in you," he says.
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