Most Americans are now aware of the plight of Genarlow Wilson. Three years ago, the now 21-year-old African-American was sentenced to 10 years in prison under a Georgia law that turned his act of consensual oral sex into "aggravated child molestation" and subjected him to a harsh mandatory jail sentence.
Incredibly, it was "my" law under which Wilson was convicted and sentenced. It was never, ever the law's intention to lock up young people for 10 years for consensual sex.
Turn back to 1995. I was serving my last term in the Georgia House of Representatives. I introduced "The Child Protection Act of 1995." It created harsh penalties for the sexual abuse or other harmful neglect of children. That legislation would never have impacted Genarlow Wilson had it passed into law as it was originally written.
Wilson's misadventure went like this: Back when he was 17, he and some friends had a party. Somebody videotaped Wilson having sexual intercourse with a girl his age and, also that night, oral sex with a 15-year-old girl.
The district attorney charged Wilson with various crimes, including rape. A jury heard testimony and watched the video, then almost immediately determined that Wilson wasn't guilty of rape.
They did find him guilty of aggravated child molestation, primarily because part of the definition of that offense includes "sodomy," which under Georgia law includes oral sex.
What the jury didn't know was that their verdict meant a mandatory 10-year sentence for Wilson. When they found out, they were horrified.
How did Wilson get slapped with such drastic punishment under the law I originally drafted? The answer is the part of this story that no one knows.
When my bill reached the state Senate, the powerful Senate Judiciary chairperson insisted that a bill designed to raise Georgia's age of consent from 14 to 16 be merged with my legislation. This, even though my bill was designed to target truly bad people with truly bad intent.
The result was that a 15-year-old, who wasn't defined as a "child" under my bill, now became one, thanks to the new age-of-consent provision of the bill.
The Senate chair allowed little in the way of clarifying the merged legislation. One thing we did manage to include was a so-called "Romeo and Juliet" provision in the law for statutory rape. It explicitly provided for misdemeanor status if the victim was 14 or 15 years old and the convicted person was no more than three years older than the victim.
Clearly our intent was that persons just like Genarlow Wilson would be allowed misdemeanor treatment for having consensual sex with, in his case, a 15-year-old "child" when he was only 17 himself.