Court: Teen-sex sentence 'cruel and unusual' punishment
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The Georgia Supreme Court on Friday ordered that Genarlow Wilson be released from prison in a 4-3 decision, ruling that his sentence for a teen sex conviction was cruel and unusual punishment.
Genarlow Wilson's case received national attention and led to changes in Georgia law.
Wilson was convicted in 2005 of having oral sex with a consenting 15-year-old girl when he was 17.
He has served two years in prison.
Wilson's attorney, B.J. Bernstein, told CNN that he can be released as soon as a Monroe County judge issues a new order and serves it to the attorney general. Bernstein added that she called the prison warden, who informed Wilson of his pending release.
"We want him home," Bernstein said. "In the end it shows this: That the courts can work, the courts do work."
At the time of Wilson's conviction, Georgia law made the crime punishable by 10 years in prison. The law was later amended, making such conduct "punishable by no more than a year in prison and no sex offender registration," the court noted.
But those changes were not made retroactive, so they did not apply to Wilson.
Georgia Supreme Court's order
The Georgia high court upheld the decision of the Monroe County judge. In a 48-page opinion, the court said the "severe" punishment Wilson received and his mandated sex offender registration make "no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment."
Friday's decision came after a protracted legal battle that has galvanized international attention and drawn the involvement of civil rights leaders. Partly as a result of Wilson's conviction, state legislators changed the law to make such consensual conduct between minors a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.
The case revolves around a New Year's Eve party outside Atlanta in 2003 when Wilson engaged in the sex act with the girl.
Under a now-changed Georgia law, Wilson was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation. He was acquitted on a second charge of raping a 17-year-old girl -- who prosecutors maintained was too intoxicated at the party to consent.
The 10-year sentence was mandatory under the law.
In the decision, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote that changes in the law "represent a seismic shift in the legislature's view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants."
"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," the court's majority found.
"For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," the majority opinion concluded.
The dissent noted that the Georgia Legislature had made clear that the changes in the law were not to be applied retroactively.
Justice George Carley, writing for the dissenting justices, said, "The General Assembly made the express decision that he cannot benefit from the subsequent legislative determination to reduce the sentence for commission of that crime from felony to misdemeanor status."
The majority countered that it was not applying the 2006 amendment retroactively, but instead factoring that "into its determination that Wilson's punishment is cruel and unusual," the court said in a news release.
The court said this kind of decision is unusual: "The majority opinion points out that this court rarely overturns a sentence on cruel and unusual grounds. But twice before, it did so following a legislative change."
Monroe County Superior Court judge ruled that Wilson's punishment was cruel and unusual and voided it on constitutional grounds.
The judge reduced the sentence to one year and said Wilson should not be put on Georgia's sex offender registry, as the old law required.
Wilson's jubilant attorneys had hoped that ruling would free him from state prison. But shortly after it was handed down, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker announced he would appeal the decision, a move that kept Wilson behind bars.
The high court said unanimously that the decision to deny Wilson bail was correct.
Wilson's plight drew pleas for his release, including from former President Carter, an ex-Georgia governor, and even some of the jurors who convicted him.
Legislation that would make the change in Georgia's child molestation law retroactive to free Wilson failed to win approval earlier this year.