High school homecoming king Genarlow Wilson walked out of prison a free man on Friday, thanks to an extraordinary intervention by the Georgia Supreme Court. In ordering his immediate release, the court ruled that his 10-year prison term which allowed no parole and included lifetime registration as a sex offender was "cruel and unusual."
The decision is a stunning rebuke for prosecutors and the state Legislature. Wilson, now 21, was convicted of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex with a 15-year-old classmate in 2003. Howard J. Bashman, author of the widely-regarded How Appealing legal blog and one of America's leading appellate lawyers, told TIME the order for Wilson's release was "very, very unusual." But Bashman added that Wilson's sentence was so outrageous that the most surprising thing about the 4-3 ruling was that it was so close.
Wilson was seventeen, a football star and honor student when he was arrested in 2003. At the time of his trial, sexual intercourse between minors less than four years apart was a misdemeanor, even if one of them was younger than 16, Georgia's age of consent. But oral sex legally considered sodomy in Georgia carried no so-called Romeo and Juliet provision, and remained a felony in all cases if either party was under 16.
That changed in 2006, when lawmakers dropped the distinction between oral sex and intercourse. But they refused to apply that change retroactively in order to set Wilson free.
Meanwhile, Wilson sat in prison, studying for the SAT and, he told reporters Friday, never quite losing faith in the courts, despite repeated setbacks. And they were many.
As recently as December, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected Wilsonĺs first appeal on the grounds that the Legislature had explicitly decided not to apply their legal changes to Wilson's case. In the court's opinion, Justice Carol Hunstein wrote: "While I am very sympathetic to Wilson's argument regarding the injustice of sentencing this promising young man with good grades and no criminal history to ten years in prison without parole and a lifetime registration as a sexual offender ... this Court is bound by the Legislature's determination."
Efforts to win new legislation failed early this year, when leaders in the state Senate refused to hold hearings on a bill that would have set him free. In an op-ed he must surely regret now, Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson defended the legislature's failure to act. "Life comes with accountability for our decisions. Genarlow Wilson could have selected different friends to hang with."
But Friday's ruling made clear that it was lawmakers not Wilson who had made the most serious errors. "We must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children and that, for the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of ten years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," wrote Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears.
Sears' opinion was a muscular and rare expression of raw judicial power, a point highlighted, and condemned, by the three-judge dissent. (Sears, in turn, called the dissent "disingenuous.")
What's striking about the decision to set Wilson free is the majority's reliance on the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Criminal defense attorneys often cite the language in seeking their client's release, but are rarely successful. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has relied on the Eight Amendment to steadily chip away at the death penalty in recent decisions barring the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally ill. But even the harshest prison sentences are rarely reversed.
In 1991, for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals of a Michigan man who had been sentenced to life without parole for possessing 672 grams of cocaine. In 1980, the high court let stand a 40-year sentence for possession and distribution of nine ounces of marijuana.
At every step of the way, Wilson was offered and refused a lesser sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt. He refused to accept a plea before the trial, and refused again before sentencing. "I mean what kind of chance would he have in life, if he came out of prison as a sex offender for the rest of his life," said Wilson's mother, Juannessa Bennett, in an interview with TIME earlier this year.
On Friday, a beaming Wilson told reporters that nearly three years was a very long time to be in prison, but asked if he had any regrets, Wilson said:
"As for standing up and fighting for what I believe is justice? No," said Wilson, who also declined to apologize for having oral sex with the 15-year-old girl. "I've said before, we all made mistakes and we need to learn from them."
In its own way, that was the same message the Supreme Court had for prosecutors in the case and members of the Legislature.