ATLANTA — A long day of media interviews had worn Genarlow Wilson down Thursday.
Starting with an early morning appearance on the nationally syndicated radio program, “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” running through a day of chats with wire services, cable networks and newspapers, Wilson was tired and just wanted to relax and be a regular 21-year-old.
“It’s mentally exhausting,” he said.
But Wilson’s odyssey from a Georgia jail cell to starting the spring semester Jan. 16 as a part-time Morehouse College student is only continuing.
His tale is one of redemption.
And he’s ready.
“I ended up being in an unfortunate situation, but part of being a man is overcoming your wrongs and doing something about it,” Wilson said. “You stand hard, look adversity in the eye, stand and work at it until you successfully complete it.”
This time last year, Wilson was state prisoner 1187055 in a nationally known case in which he was convicted of aggravated child molestation, but the issue prompted national discussions about fairness and justice in the criminal justice system.
Now, thanks to help from Morehouse administrators, community organizations and the Tom Joyner Foundation, he’ll begin life anew on Jan. 16 when he enrolls at Morehouse College.
“I’m blessed. The support is overwhelming. There are just no words to express my happiness,” Wilson said. “They will not be disappointed. Failure is not an option.”
In 2003, Wilson was convicted of the aggravated child molestation of a female 15-year-old, Douglas County (Ga.) High School classmate. He was 17, a high school football star, the homecoming king and was headed to college that fall.
But during a hotel party with his friends, Wilson was videotaped having consensual oral sex with the girl.
Under old Georgia law, oral sex with anyone 15 or younger was a felony, punishable to at least 10 years in jail. Through a strange twist in the law, intercourse between the two would have been a misdemeanor and would have only given Wilson 12 months in jail.
But he was convicted of the felony and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Public criticism mounted as the law’s fairness was widely questioned by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and former President Jimmy Carter.
Georgia legislators eventually changed the law, making the same offense Wilson was convicted of a misdemeanor — instead of a felony — with a maximum punishment of a year in jail. But it wasn’t retroactive, so Wilson remained in jail.
The Georgia Supreme Court took up the case and eventually ruled Wilson’s punishment was cruel and unusual.
After two years behind bars, Wilson was released in October 2007.
One of the first things Wilson talked about when he walked out of the Burruss Correctional Training Center was attending college.
Before prison, he’d received letters from Ivy League football schools like Columbia and Brown Universities. Four years later, everything was up in the air.
That’s when he thought about Morehouse
“My coming from the situation I was coming from, I felt like it was the best place for me,” Wilson said.
Morehouse President Dr. Robert Franklin agrees.
“To be a Morehouse man means to be a Renaissance man of moral conscious,” Franklin told listeners of the Tom Joyner Morning Show Thursday.
Franklin named alums like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, former track star Edwin Moses and actor Samuel L. Jackson as those who’ve exemplified excellence in academics, community service, leadership and character.
“And we are delighted to now welcome into the fold a very promising young brother who had a very difficult start, but we expect to have a terrific finish,” Franklin said of Wilson.
Wilson will get plenty of help.
Tom Joyner’s foundation has pledged to pay for Wilson’s tuition, room and board and other Morehouse costs.
Atlanta area Omega Psi Phi fraternity members have begun to mentor Wilson. One Morehouse faculty member has already pledged to do the same once Wilson progresses in his chosen major (he’s thinking about majoring in sociology or history).
At some point, Wilson hopes to play football for the Maroon Tigers.
But like any other student this time of the year, Wilson is just ready to go to class.
“I don’t think any words can express how ready I am,” he said. “I’ve been prepared to go. I just had a minor setback.”
–Add Seymour Jr.
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