Six years ago, Genarlow Wilson was a national statistic — a young black man behind bars regretting his bad decisions and waiting for another shot at life.
Today, Wilson will receive his sociology degree from Morehouse College, where President Barack Obama will deliver the commencement address.
“I’ve done a lot on this road to redemption,” Wilson said. “A lot of people said I would fail. I just want to do the right thing, to live my life the right way.”
Wilson was at the heart of a case that forced Georgians into a frank, often volatile discussion about teen sexuality, mandatory sentencing and a state law that did not distinguish between teenagers having consensual sex and adult predators who raped and molested children.
Wilson was months away from graduating high school and heading off to college, presumably on a football scholarship, when one night rerouted his 17-year-old life. It was Dec. 31, 2003, and Wilson joined a group of teenagers to drink shots of brandy and smoke marijuana at the Days Inn in Douglasville. He and four other teenage boys ended up engaging in multiple sex acts with two girls, ages 15 and 17. Though Wilson said the sex was consensual, the 15-year-old girl could not legally give her consent because she was under 16. One of the teens videotaped their exploits. They were arrested on multiple felony charges.
The other young men took plea bargains. Wilson decided to stand trial. He didn’t think of himself as a child molester. Nor did he want the stigma of being listed on Georgia’s sex offender registry.
“We all should have made better decisions,” Wilson says of that night. “And I don’t condone that type of behavior. I look back, shake my head and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that. That is not the person who I am now.’ ”
Wilson says he thinks often about the young women he harmed and is deeply remorseful. He hasn’t had any contact with the young women, who have rarely (if ever) spoken publicly about the case.
Raised by his mother, Wilson had been a popular two-sport athlete at Douglas County High School who’d never been in trouble with the law. He maintained a B average and helped his mother take care of his younger sister. He had little contact with his father.
In 2005, Wilson was acquitted of rape but convicted of aggravated child molestation for having oral sex with a minor. The severity of his sentence — 10 years — made international headlines, earning Wilson a number of high-profile local and national supporters, including prominent pastors, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner.
The case also attracted the interest of state Sen. Emanuel Jones, a DeKalb legislator and businessman. Jones grew up in one of Atlanta’s toughest neighborhoods, and he had relatives who’d become entangled in the criminal justice system.
Jones joined forces with Wilson’s appellate attorney, B.J. Bernstein, who in 2006 successfully urged the Georgia Legislature to change the law so consensual oral sex involving minors and teenagers of a similar age was a misdemeanor. Sexual intercourse involving minors and teenagers of a similar age was already a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in prison.
Jones and Bernstein pursued legal and legislative solutions to free Wilson, since legislators declined to make the law he inspired retroactive. Jones and Bernstein wanted Wilson’s 10-year mandatory sentence to be voided. But opposition exposed the deep misgivings many in the Legislature had about changing sexual predator laws. Some legislators believed that since Wilson was convicted under the law at the time, he did not deserve special treatment.
In early 2007, Jones drove to the Al Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth to meet with Wilson. Jones said the warden pulled him aside and said: “ ‘Senator, we have people down here that need to be here. And we have some that don’t. Genarlow doesn’t need to be here.’ ”
It wasn’t the first time Jones had heard that. Too many youthful offenders who had engaged in extremely poor judgment were getting caught in state laws designed for adult predators, corrections officials told the senator.
That day at the prison, Jones expected to meet a big, hulking guy, the star football player. “And this kid walks out, very demure, very humble. And instantly our spirits connected. I left there saying, ‘Why is this kid here?’ Had it been me — and I grew up in Atlanta in Bankhead Courts — I’d have been mad as hell. I’d have a big chip on my shoulder.”
Jones made Wilson a promise: He would be there for him when he got out of prison.
Jones had private conversations with his colleagues in the Legislature, and with judges and fellow businessmen. He attempted to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors, but they wouldn’t agree to keep Wilson off the sex offender registry. He unsuccessfully lobbied then-State Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who maintained that his job was to enforce state laws.
In October 2007, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Wilson’s 10-year mandatory sentence, calling it “cruel and unusual” and “grossly disproportionate.”
Jones was there to escort Wilson out of prison. Two weeks later, he offered him a job in the parts department at his car dealership in McDonough.
Jones wanted Wilson to develop work skills so he could fulfill his desire to help his mother, Juannessa Bennett. And he wanted to make sure Wilson knew how much was riding on his success.
Alvin Darden, Morehouse’s dean of freshmen, had no preconceived notions about the 21-year-old convicted felon turned college freshman standing in front of him in January 2008. He saw a determined young man who made a firm declaration, “Dean, I will graduate.”
Darden recalls the day he was called into a meeting with then-Morehouse admissions dean Sterling Hudson, who asked Darden to mentor Wilson.
Darden had known many Genarlow Wilsons in his life. He was especially struck by Wilson’s opportunity for a second chance. To make good on it, he and Hudson knew their mentee would need a special brand of protection and independence.
“Genarlow’s coming from an environment where he was living among many, many African-American males in a locked-up, confined situation. Then coming to Morehouse, where you have about 2,500 mostly African-American males,” Darden said. “Now my insides told me that we had to be very sensitive to his adjustment to Morehouse.”
So Darden and Hudson gently suggested that Wilson spend more time on campus, instead of going home every weekend. They discouraged him from joining the football team.
There were constant requests for interviews and speaking engagements, and Wilson didn’t want to say no. But Darden and Hudson knew Wilson’s focus had to be on academics.
When his 22nd birthday rolled around that April, they surprised him with a birthday party complete with a cake, a maroon Morehouse blazer and a shirt and tie.
The late Benjamin E. Mays, a former Morehouse president, challenged the college to be a place where young black men whom he called “diamonds in the rough” could realize their unseen potential, said Hudson. “If there’s a diamond in the rough, Genarlow’s it; or he was it. He’s smoothed over quite a bit, he’s polished. I know he feels blessed.”
Earning a college degree had always been a dream of Wilson’s.
He settled on Morehouse when school officials made clear their end game was the same as his: graduation. A full scholarship from the Tom Joyner Foundation, which provides funds to students attending historically black colleges, made attendance financially possible.
Wilson’s time at Morehouse wasn’t easy. He didn’t fare well in his first classes. After spending a few months in a freshman dorm, he felt out of place and moved off campus.
He also realized he needed to study more.
“I was out of school for a long time, so my learning and study habits had been put on hold. I had to learn how to study again, how to write and type papers.”
Former Morehouse President Robert Franklin encouraged Wilson, sending him positive text messages and articles. Another constant has been his mentor Thomas Joyner Jr., who heads the foundation.
Wilson finished his degree requirements in December and works as a detention technician with the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, where he monitors the security of inmates and officers. He is no longer on the sex offender’s registry but he is still a convicted felon.
“Being back in that environment at first was overwhelming,” he said. “I said I’d never be back, but certain people talked to me and reminded me that I get to walk out every day, and that now I’m coming back to make a difference.”
In the last few years, Wilson has spoken to hundreds of high school and college students all over the country about the dangers of drinking, doing drugs and being sexually promiscuous.
“I want to do so much more,” Wilson said. “I feel like we neglect our youth; we turn our back on them. So many people reached out to help me … it makes you work harder.”
Before he came to the college, Franklin said he had conversations with Wilson to make sure that he understood his behavior had consequences.
“He took responsibility and I sensed it was a deep heartfelt expression; not just something he was asked to repeat. From there we opened the conversation that … he had to become a leader and that he must really go the extra mile and become an advocate for gender justice … the rights and well-being of women and to model that.”
Wilson’s main job these days is fatherhood. In March, his fiancée gave birth to a baby girl.
When the time comes, the father will no doubt tell his daughter about his past mistakes.
“I’ll explain to her that her Daddy’s not perfect. … I’m going to be there for her every day to teach her right from wrong and that standards mean everything.”