At long last, the Georgia Supreme Court has ordered Genarlow Wilson freed from jail after nearly three years behind bars. The question is why it took so long for justice to prevail.
In this well-publicized case, Wilson, then 17 and a high school student, was convicted of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex at a 2003 New Year's Eve party with a 15-year-old girl. While both sides at the trial acknowledged that the sex with a fellow student had been consensual, the crime carried a minimum sentence of 10 years and Wilson's registration as a child molester upon his release.
In large part as a reaction to the inequity of this case, the Georgia Legislature changed the law last year to make oral sex between teens close in age a misdemeanor. But the change in the law had no effect on Wilson's case. In fact, the state Supreme Court had upheld a lower court's ruling that said the new law could not be applied retroactively.
In its 4-3 ruling on Oct. 26, the court essentially reversed that decision. Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote in the majority opinion that the changes in the law "represent a seismic shift in the legislature's view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants." She added that the severe punishment makes "no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment" and that Wilson's crime did not rise to the "level of adults who prey on children."
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Some on the court, however, believed that Wilson should have remained behind bars to complete his sentence. To reverse the conviction, wrote Justice George H. Carley for the minority, would arbitrarily usurp the authority of the law and subject Georgia to the "tyranny of the judiciary."
But this decision was hardly arbitrary. It was, as the majority on the court saw it, the righting of an injustice.
Significantly, rather than simply a dry legalistic debate, this case had a life -- Wilson's -- hanging in the balance. The notion that an otherwise law-abiding young man would have to spend 10 years behind bars and be labeled a child molester for life evoked the concerns not only of Georgians but also of thousands of others across the nation.
Complaints about judicial activism are rampant, and there are many examples of where judges have thwarted the authority of legislatures. This case, however, demonstrates how the active involvement of a humane judiciary can invoke reason and compassion to undo a wrong.
Judicial activism or not, that is a legitimate function of the court.
Georgia Supreme Court acted in the name of reason and compassion in releasing man.
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