MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
The fires are all but out in the West, but the drought in the Southeast lingers on. We'll tell you how's it affecting city dwellers and farmers alike, and a dialogue about the politics of skin color.
But first, we want to bring you an update on a young man we have been following since the beginning of this program. It was two and a half years ago that a Georgia teenager named Genarlow Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation after having consensual sex with a girl just two years younger than he was. Wilson was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Last year, the law was changed to make sex between consenting minors a misdemeanor. A Georgia court ordered Wilson released, but he remained behind bars after an appeal by the state attorney general.
Last Friday, however, the Georgia Supreme Court ordered Genarlow Wilson released. He joins us today by phone from his home.
Mr. Wilson, welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. GENARLOW WILSON: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: How did you find out that you were going to be released? I remember you had a false start back in June when the lower court said you should be released, but you weren't. How did you find out this time, and was it hard to believe?
Mr. WILSON: Yes. I was in really a state of shock, because I really couldn't believe that it was coming. It was so unexpected. But, you know, I'm glad that it did come, and it couldn't have been better timing.
MARTIN: What was it like for you when you walked out of the prison and you saw - I'm sure there were a lot of people there. I know your mom was there and your sister was there, and your lawyer, B.J. Bernstein was there. But I saw a lot of microphones. What was it like from your end?
Mr. WILSON: I was just so excited, you know, just to finally have a chance, a second chance at life. And, you know, I was very ecstatic. I was just so overjoyed, and ,you know, just grateful that I was able to return home to my family.
MARTIN: What was the worst part of this whole thing for you?
Mr. WILSON: Just being away from home so long, and just dealing with all the disappointment. You know, just being labeled like a was, as a predator or a child molester, you know. It was very - you know, it was just, it hurt me a lot to be labeled as that, because I know I'm nothing of that nature. You know, just because, you know, I have a little sister who I love so much, and I didn't want it. I definitely didn't want their label because of that.
MARTIN: If you had been labeled a child molester, you couldn't have lived with her?
Mr. WILSON: Exactly. I couldn't live with - I couldn't stay with my sister. You know, basically, that's like telling that I can't have any kids myself because I would be labeled as a molester of where I go in and, you know, with the (unintelligible) and the laws that they have now, you know, anyone can just look you up on the Internet and see where you staying, just put your picture up anywhere. So it was definitely not been good.
MARTIN: And that raises a question. You served 32 months in prison, but the prosecutor and the attorney general said you could have been out sooner if you had agreed to take a plea deal. Why did you refuse to take a plea deal?
Mr. WILSON: Just because it still would have been along with the sex offender registry. You know, it wasn't a point about how much time I had. It was a principle that, you know, I will be labeled for life. You know, being a sex offender's a life punishment itself. And I just couldn't accept that label as being a molester, you know, because I know that I'm not.
MARTIN: Now you've said several times - I know you talked to a number of people about this. You've said publicly that the circumstances that got you in this situation, you were at this New Year's Eve party. I don't know if you were drinking, but a lot of people were drinking, you know, had sex with more than one young lady. You've said several times that what you did was wrong. So I wanted to ask you why you think you've gone into that situation to begin with?
Mr. WILSON: Well, just being a typical teenager, just trying to have fun. And, you know, at the time, you - I had no knowledge that what I was doing was breaking the law because I didn't know that you couldn't mess with someone, you know, of that age, and, you know, because these are the people that you're going to school with, you're had a classes with and, you know, we didn't have any class that tell us that we couldn't do this. But, at the same time, yes, I know did not make the best of decisions.
And, you know, I look back on it now, and I say, you know, I can't believe that was me, because I've matured so much now. I was a boy then, but now I consider myself a man. You know, this really just, you know, made me better as a person and just taught me valuable life lessons.
MARTIN: But what is it you think about that situation - I mean, here you were, you know, you were a football player. I know you had attracted some notice. I think a lot of people thought were scholarship material, you know, because of your grades and because of your athletic ability. I just wonder why you were willing to jeopardize all that for a night, you know, in a hotel room? What you - it just didn't occur to you that could be a problem, or it just seemed, what, too good to pass up or what?
Mr. WILSON: No, because you really don't think about that at the time. You don't think about that you're, you know, putting everything in jeopardy. Like I said, you know, we didn't know that it was just so wrong to, you know, have fun, to have a party. I admit that - you know, I don't condone that behavior. I don't, you know, I wouldn't tell anybody to go out there and do what we did. I would tell them not to do that, and, you know, to make better decisions than I did at their age, and just be very cautious, you know, about what you're doing the whole year round, because, you know, a few minutes of pleasure can be a lifetime full of trouble, and it could be very hard to get out of.
MARTIN: What do you want to do now?
Mr. WILSON: My main part is to get into college as soon as possible. I'm trying to figure out, you know, where I would like to go, and just what would be, you know, in the best interests of me and my family. But I'm definitely looking forward to doing that.
MARTIN: What do you think you want to major in? Any idea?
Mr. WILSON: Yes. I look forward to majoring in sociology, because that field will serve me personally because I've been living my major, basically. You know, just dealing with this experience, I feel like I will be good in this area.
MARTIN: Any idea of - I know it's always - everything's new to you now, but any idea what you think you want to do in the future once you get through college?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I definitely want to, you know, just - I want to talk to the youth, and not just the youth, but college students as well. They make the same mistakes. You know, so I'm looking forward to helping my lawyer. She has a nonprofit organization called my5th.org, and basically, it educates you on, you know, all the new laws.
Mr. WILSON: I feel like a lot of people can learn from my experience and my mistakes.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Genarlow Wilson, who was just released from prison after serving 32 months for having consensual oral sex with a girl who was two years younger than he was.
How is your mom doing? I know this must have been hard on her.
Mr. WILSON: It's been very hard on her. And, you know, that's what hurt me so much because it seemed like, you know, her life had to be put on hold, and she couldn't be happy because when I was going through this - you know, I haven't felt it yet but, you know, from what I understand, you know, a good parent, if you're child is going through anything that's very hard, you know, they're going to take it hard, you know, even harder than their child.
Because, you know, they're going to feel like where did they go wrong. But I always tell her that she never went wrong. And, you know, she's the one who held me together. She was my backbone throughout this whole experience, and, you know, I just can't tell her how much, you know, that meant to me that she stood by me, you know, every day for this long, and, you know, I'm just had to repay her now by, you know, just showing her how much I love her.
MARTIN: And maybe keeping your room clean would be good.
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Mr. WILSON: Exactly.
MARTIN: Take out the trash.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Just all the simple stuff, you know, they matter. You know, they're a big deal.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. What - and you mentioned earlier that you - I assume what you were saying is you'd like to become a parent yourself. What do you think you'll tell your children if you're fortunate enough to have them about this experience and how to handle themselves in situations?
Mr. WILSON: I would tell them, you know, how it was before this situation, tell them what I had to endure and how it made me as a better person. And I would just tell them that, you know, it's hard, but, you know, if you truly believe in yourself, you know, fight for your cause, you know, in what you believe in, always stand up. And, you know, it's just, basically, it's just good to have, you know, faith in yourself, you know, even when no one else does. And I just tell them, you know, how far I've come, you know, because I do plan on succeeding in life.
MARTIN: Many people came to your defense. I think you were probably aware of that, that a lot of civil rights leaders, members of the legislature, religious leaders, all took an interest in your case, as well as your family, and, of course, your attorney. How do you - what do you think about that? How does that make you feel when you think about all the people who stepped forward to help you?
Mr. WILSON: Oh, it's definitely a blessing, and it's just great to see that so many people, you know, they came to our defense, and it's just an absolute honor. And I know that a lot of people put their reputation on the line to help, you know, get me on the outside, and, you know, I just want them to know that I will not disappoint them. You know, failure's not even an option for me.
MARTIN: Do you still think about playing sports?
Mr. WILSON: Oh, most definitely. I love sports. Seeing if can pursue, you know, sports, but I'm more set on my education than anything.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm, okay. And if you had any final thoughts for - I don't know, if you could go back and talk to the Genarlow four years ago, the 17-year-old, you know, before all this started, what do you think you would tell him?
Mr. WILSON: Basically, what I'd tell, you know, all the rest of, you know, the kids out there, and, you know, college students, just think about what do you before you do it, you know, make better decisions. Make wise decisions and make the right choice, you know, because you don't want to end up in a situation where you don't have anything, you know, just taking away everything that you ever had, and, you know, you ever loved. Just be careful, be cautious of your surroundings and the people who are around you.
MARTIN: Genarlow Wilson, recently released from prison. He joined us by phone from his home.
Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for speaking with us, and good luck to you.
Mr. WILSON: Thank you.
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MARTIN: We'd like to hear what you think about the Genarlow Wilson case and about his recent comments. Go to our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore. You can also check out my daily blog there as well.