Bad Legislation: A Real Nightmare

Matt Towery

3/1/2007 12:00:00 AM - Matt Towery

When I argued last week that Al Gore isn't necessarily out of the picture in the 2008 presidential race, I received many a note saying I was the only idiot writing such rubbish.

If you watched the long and often boring Academy Awards last Sunday, you might have seen where I'm coming from. Newspaper headlines the next day declared, "Gore Might Run." James Carville penned a column saying Gore would run -- and could win.

But I definitely can be wrong. To illustrate, allow me to bring readers up to date on the real story behind the imprisonment of Genarlow Wilson, the young man who was in his teens when he was convicted of having sex with a minor and sentenced to 10 years. The case has made Georgia a source of national attention.

It was a bad law that led to Wilson's 10-year mandatory sentence. What's worse, I was technically the author of the bill.

At the time I introduced the "Child Protection Act of 1995," I was close with all political leaders in Georgia, was U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's chairman, and had been named the National Republican Freshman Legislator of the Year several years earlier. So it wasn't hard for me to pass through the Georgia House, where I then served, a bill designed to punish truly heinous child molesters and others who abuse children.

When the bill reached the state Senate, the chair of the Judiciary Committee insisted I add a Senate bill that would raise Georgia's outdated age of consent from 14 to 16.

There was just one problem: The committee chair refused to allow significant language that would have made it clear that with young people who engaged in sex, with one partner being below the age of consent, violators of the new law would not be subject to the portions of it that triggered a mandatory 10-year jail sentence.

Being the cocky legislator I was, I fooled myself into believing that some vague language in the bill would prevent such a miscarriage of justice. Moreover, proponents of adding the age of consent portion to my bill -- designed to punish truly bad people -- argued that no prosecutor would ever apply the 10-year provision to a case of two teenagers engaging in consensual sex. As an attorney who had successfully tried capital murder cases years previous, I thought I had enough legal experience to agree with them.

I passed the bill, and I've regretted it ever since. As soon as I realized the bill was being abused, I started writing about the error. I offered to provide any evidence, including statements by anyone willing, that it was not the intent of the author of the original bill to require young kids to serve 10 years in jail.

To make it clear on this specific case: Wilson, then 17, and his buddies made a videotape of Wilson having sex with a 15-year-old girl.

But that matters little. The prosecutor sought a conviction for charges of rape, plus other aggravating charges. The jury found Wilson innocent of forcible rape and the other charges. He was convicted on a technicality of the bill I passed. A 10-year sentence, never intended, was imposed.

In recent weeks I've spoken out in the media. Several of my former lawmaker colleagues have appeared to be hard and unsympathetic to the situation. But they too need to be given a break. They don't know the particulars of how the age-of-consent portion of the bill was forced onto my legislation. They have legitimate concerns about a current bill designed to address the issue. I believe the author of this current bill, and various other players of both political parties, will come together to pass a less drastic measure than the one now being offered -- but one that nevertheless will clean up this mess and lead to Wilson's freedom.

Let this be a lesson to young legislators. Think carefully before you pass legislation.

And let this be a lesson, too, to those of us who have served in the past. It doesn't take courage to pass a law. It takes more to stand up and say when it's wrong.

I only wish the other parties responsible for this situation would have joined former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard and me in speaking out and telling America the true story.