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Wilson released after two years behind bars for teen sex conviction

  • Story Highlights
  • Genarlow Wilson leaves prison
  • Georgia high court in 4-3 ruling found sentence cruel and unusual punishment
  • Wilson's 10-year sentence already had been reduced by a lower court
  • Case compelled a change in Georgia law
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Genarlow Wilson was released from prison Friday, after spending more than two years behind bars for a teen sex conviction.

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"I've got a new life," Genarlow Wilson tells reporters after being released Friday.

"At times I dealt with adversity ... my family and myself, we finally get to deal with happiness now," Wilson said, with his mother and sister at his side.

The Georgia Supreme Court earlier Friday ordered that he be released, ruling 4-3 that his sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.

Wilson, 21, was convicted in 2005 of having oral sex with a consenting 15-year-old girl when he was 17.

Wilson said he first heard about the possibility he'd be freed Friday when someone told him word was out on the radio.

"I'd seen it coming, but I didn't exactly know when," he said. "I'd just stopped trying to figure the courts out and stopped trying to put a date on it." Video Watch Wilson describe his journey to justice »

Wilson said he was looking forward to spending time with his family and plans to enroll in college to study sociology.

"You will not be disappointed," he told his supporters. "I plan on succeeding in life."

Wilson also said he doesn't regret rejecting a plea offer that could have freed him from prison months ago -- but would have required him to register as a sex offender.

"I'm glad I stayed down for my cause," he said. "I accepted the situation that I got myself into, but I never accepted that label."

Wilson's attorney, B.J. Bernstein, said earlier Friday she was working to gain his quick release.

She said Wilson's mother, Juannessa Bennett, was "overjoyed" at the court's decision.

A spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker said there will be no further appeals.

Friday's decision came after a protracted legal battle that has galvanized international attention and drawn the involvement of civil rights leaders. Partly as a result of Wilson's conviction, state legislators changed the law to make such consensual conduct between minors a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

"The release of Genarlow Wilson by the Georgia Supreme Court is a significant victory in redressing the reckless and biased behavior of the criminal justice system that now operates in many states across the union," the Rev. Al Sharpton said.

"The bad news is that his young life was so unfairly interrupted with time that no state court can recover for him," Sharpton added. "This is why the Justice Department and federal government must review state courts that willfully and almost without pause violate the civil rights of people, particularly young black men around this country."

Wilson was an honor student, a football star and his high school's homecoming king before his conviction.

At the time of Wilson's conviction, Georgia law made the crime punishable by 10 years in prison. Changes in the law made such conduct "punishable by no more than a year in prison and no sex offender registration," the Georgia high court noted.

But those changes were not made retroactive, so they did not apply to Wilson.

The high court upheld the decision of a Monroe County judge. In a 48-page opinion, the court said the "severe" punishment Wilson received and his mandated sex offender registration make "no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment."

The case revolves around a 2003 New Year's Eve party outside Atlanta when Wilson engaged in the sex act with the girl.

Under the now-changed Georgia law, Wilson was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation. He was acquitted on a second charge of raping a 17-year-old girl -- who prosecutors maintained was too intoxicated at the party to consent.

The 10-year sentence was mandatory under the law.

In the decision, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote that changes in the law "represent a seismic shift in the legislature's view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants."

"Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children," the court's majority found.

"For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," the majority opinion concluded.

The dissent noted that the Georgia Legislature had made clear that the changes in the law were not to be applied retroactively.

Writing for the dissenting justices, Justice George Carley said, "The General Assembly made the express decision that he cannot benefit from the subsequent legislative determination to reduce the sentence for commission of that crime from felony to misdemeanor status."

The majority countered that it was not applying the 2006 amendment retroactively, but instead factoring that "into its determination that Wilson's punishment is cruel and unusual," the court said in a news release.

The court said this kind of decision is unusual: "The majority opinion points out that this court rarely overturns a sentence on cruel and unusual grounds. But twice before, it did so following a legislative change."

The Monroe County Superior Court judge also ruled that Wilson's punishment was cruel and unusual and voided it on constitutional grounds.

The judge reduced the sentence to one year and said Wilson should not be put on Georgia's sex offender registry, as the old law required.

Wilson's jubilant attorneys had hoped that ruling would free him from state prison. But shortly after it was handed down, Georgia's attorney general announced he would appeal that decision, a move that kept Wilson behind bars.

The Georgia high court said unanimously that the decision to deny Wilson bail was correct.

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Wilson's plight drew pleas for his release, including from former President Carter, himself an ex-Georgia governor, and even some jurors who convicted him.

Legislation that would make the change in Georgia's child molestation law retroactive to free Wilson failed to win approval earlier this year. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Mary Lynn Ryan contributed to this report.

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