NPR logo Talking to Genarlow Wilson...

Talking to Genarlow Wilson...

Genarlow Wilson in prison

Genarlow Wilson pictured in early 2007 at Georgia's Burruss Correctional Training Center. Tracy J. Smith, Georgia Department of Corrections hide caption

toggle caption Tracy J. Smith, Georgia Department of Corrections

I confess it was a little strange, after talking ABOUT him for all these months, to actually talk TO him.

I'm speaking about Genarlow Wilson, of course. He's 21-years-old now, no longer a teenager.

This is one of those stories that I, personally, would not have known about, but for the fact that it engaged the blogosphere. It started as a regional story — an incident in a small town outside of Atlanta. Genarlow was 17 at the time, an athlete, considered college material. He attended a New Year's Eve party in 2003 where he, among others, had sex with a 17-year-old girl and oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. It was all caught on videotape. And it all came to light when the 17-year-old went to the authorities, alleging she had been raped. The 15-year-old was adamant that her experience was consensual. Setting aside for the moment that I don't think anybody would like the idea of his or her child participating in this situation, the question arose of a 10-year minimum sentence and whether it was the appropriate punishment ... and all because of a quirk in the law.

Wilson and the others were very quickly acquitted of raping the 17-year-old. But the 15 year old was NOT old enough to give her consent; hence, the statutory rape charge. AND, Georgia law, at the time, required that oral sex with an underage participant be very severely treated, designed to protect kids against pedophiles. Instead, it became a symbol of all that many consider wrong with the criminal justice system.

Where does race enter it into it? I have no idea. Wilson is black, the 15-year-old (at the time) is also. But I do know that this case raises a lot of questions about morality, about the law and about what society owes its young people — to both protect and inform them.

We previously talked to Genarlow's mother, Juanessa Bennett. We talked to his lawyer, B.J. Bernstein. We talked to a number of people advocating for his release ... and we talked to young people at his former high school in Douglasville, Ga., to ask them what lesson they drew from Wilson's experience. Today, just days after the Georgia Supreme Court ordered Wilson's release, we managed to talk to HIM.

Some believe that Wilson would never have been prosecuted to this extent had he been white, but it's hard to know given the unique circumstances ... and a complaining witness (even though that witness was not considered credible by the jury). I'd still like to talk to both the prosecutor and the Attorney General for their take on this emotional and complicated case.

And speaking of emotional and complicated...

NOT to make too much of a random Detroit disc jockey's decision to hold a promotion that would have allowed light-skinned black women into a nightclub for free ... BUT, this is one of those things where one might ask, what was he thinking? But more to the point, why does anybody care? But we do care. How do we know we care? Because complaints poured in from across the country. In this day and age, what does that mean?...

That was the subject of a couple of conversations today.

Some of this will be familiar to many of you. Some of it will not. I said in my introduction to the conversation that this was really a subject that people of color grapple with, but our associate editor, Douglas Hopper, who is white, begs to differ. I'll let him explain:

I often fret about the color of my skin ... especially during the summer, when my ghostly white skin is exposed to ridicule. I envy my white friends with more olive-toned complexions, which I think is healthier-looking. For better or for worse — in my world — pasty white skin is not attractive. And don't even get me going about how this plays out in the gay male community. We're dripping with fake tans. Of course, the associations are different than they are for people of color. My skin color has never cost me a job. And yes, my insecurity may be the product of airbrushing and a booming tanning industry, not centuries of oppression. But, I am not alone. White people definitely have skin color issues. If you have any doubt, just take a minute to remember all the orange people walking around this summer! There'll be more soon.

Thanks, Douglas.



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As we discuss this case, it's also worth remembering that not only did President Jimmy Carter (and other prominent Americans) speak out IN SUPPORT OF Genarlow Wilson, so did Matt Towery, the former Georgia Republican legislator who created the law under which Genarlow Wilson was prosecuted and sentenced.

Here is what Mr. Towery wrote in a recent (10.16.07) Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed piece:

As I stated in my brief to the Supreme Court, the 1995 Child Protection Act originally did not involve a change in Georgia's age of consent law. Had the Senate not added that portion to my bill, none of these young people would be in jail. That said, there is a huge difference between the Wilson case and that of Widner, whose rejected appeal is allegedly a mirror of Wilson's.

The final version of the Child Protection Act included a so-called "Romeo and Juliet" exception for young people who were within three years of age of each other and who engaged in consensual sexual intercourse. Legislative mechanics and politics precluded us from amending every section of the final bill, but we believed that by creating a Romeo and Juliet exception for consensual intercourse, courts would likely understand that for the act of oral sex, a 10-year sentence would indeed be "cruel and unusual."

...the circumstances in Wilson are more than enough to not only shock the conscience of the court but of those who wrote the original bill -- at least those of us who have been willing to claim a role in its passage.

Sent by C. Robinson | 11:46 PM | 10-29-2007

Genarlow Wilson should never have been prosecuted. He did not commit a real crime. As long as there are teenagers, there will be teenagers having sex. When the Georgia legislature revised the law that was used to convict Genarlow Wilson, they should not have made teenage sex even a misdemeanor. This is not a matter for the law to be involved in. It???s a matter for the parents and teenagers only.

Sent by Diane Hoffman | 2:04 AM | 10-30-2007

BJ Bernstein is great for the work she did to defend Genarlow Wilson and take his case as far as it needed to go. However, the persistent need to say that Mr Wilson "made some mistakes" and that he will now be educating youth about how "making mistakes" can cause serious problems, like the ones he has had (being detained for almost 2 years) is completely missing the point!

The point is that the Law in this case was not in sync with the reality of socially and culturally acceptable practices. Whether adults like it or not, many young adults and pre-teens are sexually active and this behavior should not be criminalized! The point is that we live in a highly sexual culture and that criminalizing sex between consenting teens is not ethical or right. Sex education (without moralizing about sex being wrong) is a separate question. Having Mr. Wilson speak to youth abut how he regrets the "mistakes" he made is not the right way to approach sex education. Mr Wilson's behavior was "normal" for his age and social circle and it never should have been criminalized.

Hopefully when he studies Sociology in college he will learn some alternative perspectives on why he in particular was detained for these acts and why others his age may not have been.

Sent by C McGuire | 2:07 AM | 10-30-2007

In my opinion, the prosecutors and the state of Georgia are the real criminals in this case and they owe Mr. Wilson a couple hundred thousand dollars. George deserves to gain the reputation of being America's little slice of Iran.

Sent by Freedom Fighter | 6:51 AM | 10-30-2007

Normally I avoid conversations about skin tones like a plague. To me, it falls under such conversations in the black community that even after several generations still has no way of been resolved.

However, a few times in my life I've had to confront and challenge some thinking even when I'm looked at as the enemy when it comes to the sisterhood and an object of affection with the brotherhood; you see I'm of the lighter persuasion.

This is one of the reasons Elizabeth Atkins' take on the issue resonated with me because I've dealt with the same looks. My parents are not of two different race, in fact, they are Africans but I was born several hues lighter from their skin tones. Can you imagine being a kid in boarding school (another black oddity) and your Dad came to visit only to be asked by one of your classmates "Oh my God are you adopted?"

Then I got to college and one day I got on a shuttle bus on campus and heard perhaps the most ignorant comment of them all. Since I was the only one on the bus, the lady driver who was black decided to strike up a conversation with me. When she ask for my name and I told her, she decided to ask for my name's origin (gosh if I had a dollar for those questions). I told her it was African. She looked at me up and down and said "you're light skin-ded, I thought people from Africa look like Amistad (the movie)." I sat there looking at her stunned and speechless for some seconds. When I finally found my voice, I told her "you know there are white Africans" just to repay her with the shock she just gave me.

Now as an adult, I deal with those skin-tone issues with a sense of humor especially living in an international melting pot like South Florida. I have black sister friends who have come to see that not all light-skinned sisters are snooty and to the brothers; to please come up with a better rap than "what's up red!" When it comes to the black community, I would just like to be judged not by the tone of my skin but by the content of my character.

Sent by Moji | 11:09 AM | 10-30-2007

Mr. Wilson, God bless you and your family/attorney. I followed your case from the moment I heard about it. You are a true ambassador to inform young people of their legal rights. Don't give up on your education and by all means continue to make us proud.

PS - You should have never been prosecuted.

Sent by Believer in Justice for Wrongly Accused Individuals | 2:08 PM | 10-30-2007

I enjoyed the interview with Elizabeth Atkins. It sounds as though she has had to struggle with a lot due to being biracial.

One part of the interview, I found particularly interesting is when she recounted how she sometimes feels when she enters an elevator with a black woman. She said that she felt that she thought the black woman may be thinking that she is "all that." I can say that I have never gotten on an elevator thinking that a woman or man thinks he is "all that."

I wonder if Elizabeth's feeling were more a function of how she felt than how she was treated?

Sent by D | 11:13 AM | 11-1-2007

It exists.

Sent by TR | 10:57 PM | 12-6-2007

I think that light skinned men are portrayed as lame and not masculine in society while in return, dark skinned men are supposed to be own to earth,smoothe, and have "game". This really gets to me considering that I am light skinned. Over the years, I have asked for many opinions and came to find out that some women thought lightskinned guys were arrogant and had too much self esteem. Be Real.

Sent by kyle smith | 4:59 PM | 1-9-2008