Originally published June 28, 2007
Once, as I lay whining, a friend told me it was all about choices. I continued to whine about the unfairness of it all and he simply responded, I was still making a choice -even if it was one I considered unpleasant.
On January 31, 2004, Genarlow Wilson chose to enter a hotel room filled with teenage friends, alcohol and possibly drugs. What followed could have been just another mythical teenage party, details relayed in whispers and giggles as the high school students continued towards graduation and life afterward. But in this modern age of fascination with capturing every moment of life, they brought along a video camera.
If not for the camera sitting in the corner of the room, the entire sordid scene might have been written off as another episode of teenage extravagance and experimentation. Foolish, but hardly criminal.
However, forever etched in video were the acts of that night, including a 15 year old girl performing oral sex on a line of young men; a procession which included 17 year old Genarlow Wilson.
Georgia Code at the time stated aggravated child molestation included sodomy, i.e. oral touching, with any person under the age of 16. Court transcripts reveal the Wilson jury struggled with the restrictive law but in the end were compelled to convict on the charge. Unknown to the jury and most of the public, due to mandatory sentencing, Wilson would be sent to jail for 10 years.
Following the Wilson conviction, public outrage quickly formed, reaching such lofty institutions as ESPN and the New York Times. A poorly written law had snared Genarlow Wilson, amplifying his initial bad choice into consequences which would follow him for the rest of his life. The people of Georgia demanded correction for such an obvious injustice.
On March 30, 2006, Senator Eric Johnson made a choice.
He joined the near unanimous majority in the Georgia legislature in amending the Georgia statutes for aggravated child molestation to include an exception for minors engaged in consensual oral sex. (HB-1059). As amended, if the law had been in effect at the time of Wilson's arrest he would have faced at most a misdemeanor. However, the legislature left one piece of business on the table. The change was not retroactive. Genarlow Wilson would not be freed without further action.
In the Spring of 2007, Eric Johnson faced another choice.
The Republican Party had recently swept into power in the Georgia Senate and Johnson was named President Pro Tem; a powerful position which would allow Johnson to shape the session to his caucus's will.
There can be little doubt Senator Johnson was aware of a bill filed by Senator Emmanuel Jones attempting to once again amend the aggravated child molestation statute. The bill proffered would allow any person convicted under the previous law to petition the original presiding judge to overturn the current sentence.
Senator Johnson could have worked behind the scenes tailoring the bill as narrowly as possible to prevent waves of legal maneuvering from actual child predators while insuring Wilson received a fair chance at release. It would have certainly made sense as most Georgian's believed the young man's imprisonment unjust.
If Johnson had reservations about the legal technicalities of retroactively unraveling legislation, he could have used this reasoning to defeat the bill in committee or on the floor. Some concerns were legitimate. It certainly would chafe against the bedrock principles of our legislative system to begin forming laws for individuals instead of the whole. But if the law were overly broad, the judicial system could face a nightmare of legal challenges on countless previous convictions.
Sitting on the crux of the choice, Senator Johnson chose a third way.
On February 20, 2007, Senator Johnson rose from his desk to speak on Senator Jones bill. What followed was an excoriation of Wilson and the activities of that long ago New Year's Eve; a rant filled with fabrication and fancy. He painted Wilson as a predator who used a drug filled, alcohol soaked orgy to willfully take advantage of children. He even indicated Wilson had sex with an unconscious minor; an allegation which even the prosecutor disputes. When confronted by a CNN reporter, despite Wilson's acquittal on rape charges, Johnson responded, "It's a rape in my mind".
Eric Johnson certainly faced many choices in the last legislative session, arguably none more controversial than Wilson's plight. Instead of choosing the route of quiet leadership, instead of advocacy for legislative restraint, Johnson chose demagoguery.
In the span of one year, Senator Johnson converted from a supporter of justice for those who would suffer Genarlow Wilson's fate to a fiery apostle delivering a message of deserved punishment against a boy he now viewed as a monstrous evil waiting to once again be released upon the children of Georgia.
All choices are backed by reason. Of the choices surrounding the Genarlow Wilson affair, we know the reasoning for all except one.
What caused Senator Eric Johnson to appeal to our most base human instincts, the fear of the overpowering sexual monster, in an effort to keep a young man who is no apparent threat to society imprisoned?
It is a question which deserves to be answered.