Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Lifeline of Hope

For complete background on the Genarlow Wilson case please see this Atlanta Magazine article.

A few moons ago, my friend Wilson Smith asked me if I believed the issues taken up by the General Assembly were pre-determined. I answered it is the nature of politics that those in power make the rules and there is little the minority can do. After seeing Wilson's face turn slightly ashen, I offered a lifeline of hope that there will be times when a brave legislator steps forward to do what is right instead of what is convenient..

As I followed the debate in the Senate on Amendments 1 and 1a to House Bill 197, I felt my own lifeline of optimisim slipping away.

Sen. Emanuel Jones rose to present Amendment 1. The law would allow judicial review of any convictions within the last five years which would have been rendered moot if last year's change to Georgia's aggravated child molestation statue, the so called "Romeo and Juliet" provision, had been in effect. Although the name was not mentioned, the unspoken beneficiary of the amendment would be Genarlow Wilson, sentenced under the old law to the mandatory minimum of 1o years for having consensual oral sex with a 15 year old girl when he was 17. If the act had occured after July 1st, 2006, Wilson would have at most been charged with a misdemeanor.

Frustration was evident on Jones' face. He had worked diligently the entire session to tailor legislation which would provide justice for Wilson. Faced with waves of objection, including specious accusations of freeing hoardes of sexual predators, Jones finally presented an amendment constructed so narrowly it would affect only 91 convictions. All would require judicial review specifically defined to address the change in the statute. No amnesty for molestors. No free pass out of prison for predators. Simply a chance for the original judge to review the case and determine if justice was truly done.

Jones' reward for his dogged work? First, Judiciary Chair Preston Smith rose to praise Jones for his hard work, receive reciprocal praise for his own assistance on the amendment and then matter of factly state despite all this hard work, the bill would not pass constitutional muster. Then, Erick Johnson rose to continue his tales of loosed predators, victims repeatedly traumatized and lawmakers intefering with the actions of juries and judges.

Democrats rose to defend the amendment. A second amendment was proffered to address the constitutional question. Attempts were made to part the lace of fear and deceit so carefully woven by their Republican opponents.

All political theater. All staged so the Republicans could act tough on crime and Democrats could be on record as trying to save a young man from a travesty of justice. It was apparent to all the Jones amendment was dead before it was born. Snuffed by a powerful committee chair, the President Pro Tem and their colleagues.

I felt the cautious optimism I offered Wilson seep away. I was actually witnessing the fait accompli I had warned was the norm. It mattered not that a life would remain in ruins; that a young man would rot in jail branded with the scarlet letter of "sexual offender" for the rest of his life. Despite the so-called stately manner of the Senate, this august body's continued claims of reason, on this day, only politics mattered.

Then another Senator rose to speak.

Sen. Dan Weber, Republican from Dekalb County.

Sen. Weber defended the constitutionality of the amendments. Politely but mercilessly he questioned a member of his own party on the specific statutes and exclusions. In the tortuous manner of Senate debate, Weber expressed to his colleagues that he believed the amendment was passable. That it was good law.

Jones amendment failed 32-19. The fait accompli done. Genarlow Wilson still incarcerated with little further hope.

As the camera panned the Senate chamber, I noticed one rather lengthy arm raised in support of the amendment. It was the prodigious appendage of Sen. Dan Weber.

It was a small act, probably lost in the maelstrom of the last days of an overlong session. But as I told Wilson, it is on the smallest stands where we must latch our belief that all is not pre-ordained. Although I weep at the travesty which was executed in the Senate on April 17th, one man's vote forces me to once again grasp at the lifeline of hope.

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