Juannessa Bennett sensed something was wrong when she returned to her Atlanta home from work on the morning of January 1, 2003. The hunch was confirmed when her son, Genarlow Wilson, then 17, spilled details of the party he had attended the previous night involving alcohol and group sex. Bennett was stunned, but not nearly as shocked as when Wilson, who was seen on a videotape of the party receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl, was arrested for aggravated child molestation.
At that time in Georgia, oral sex with anyone under 16 was a felony. Refusing to be branded a sex offender for life, the teen refused to take a plea deal. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, where he has served more than two years. The strain of living a Black mother's nightmare is evident in Bennett's sometimes shaky voice, but equally apparent is her determination to battle a system that continues to keep her child locked up. In July, the Georgia Supreme Court heard an appeal in the case and their decision is pending.
In her first feature interview, Bennett talks to essence.com about what she tells her son, the importance of faith, and the night that changed her life.
Essence.com: What do you talk about with your son?
Juannessa Bennett: Mostly what I do is try to keep his head level because he's still very young. It's hard to stay positive when you feel like you've done the right thing and it still comes back and haunts you. So even though I have my moments of depression, I try to keep him encouraged and tell him to keep his faith.
Essence.com: A lot can happen in a year, and Genarlow has been in prison for more than two. How has it changed him?
J.B.: He went in as a teenager and he's definitely become a man. The things he says aren't typical of the average 21-year-old. He's set goals, like to go to school and study sociology because he wants to help people and share his experience with other children, especially now because he has a testimony.
Essence.com: In June, a Monroe County judge reduced Genarlow's prison sentence, only to have it be immediately appealed by Attorney General Thurbert Baker. What was that day like?
J.B.: I was still at attorney B.J. Bernstein's office, trying to make preparations with the warden for Genarlow to be released, when the word came through about the appeal. To be so happy one hour, and then go through that-words cannot begin to describe how I felt. I couldn't speak or move for two days. I just curled up in my bed. My mouth would open but nothing would come out but tears.
Essence.com: In a statement, the Attorney General said that prosecuting attorneys offered a deal that would have dropped Genarlow's requirement to register as a sex offender and possibly allow him to be released from prison. Why didn't you take this deal?
J.B.: He would have still had 15 years' probation to serve five years in prison. He would still have had to plead to a felony, and it would be on his record. People who've been convicted of a felony are so limited in the kind of employment they can get. We're talking about a consensual act between a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. It makes no sense.
Essence.com: Some people thought you were sacrificing your son to make a point.
J.B.: This is not making a point. If those people were in the same position, I would hope they would want to do the same for their child. It's easy for someone to say that when they haven't experienced it. A lot of other mothers might have jumped on that deal, but I wanted so much more for my son than to be a convicted felon.
Essence.com: What kind of emotional toll has Genarlow's incarceration had on you?
J.B.: For a long time, I did everything from drinking too much to not eating to overeating. But now I understand the cause for this and that God picked us for a particular reason. Another child could be in the same situation, but because of Genarlow the law has been changed. Today another child wouldn't have to serve more than 12 months max. This won't happen again. Maybe the Lord allowed this to escalate to such a high-profile case so we could help, not just ourselves, but other people, too.
Essence.com: The night of the incident, New Year's Eve 2002, did you know he was going to the party?
J.B.: I did not know. He left home that day with two of the boys that were there. I could hear them in his room and they were whispering. When I asked him what they were whispering about, he said, "Oh, it's nothing." Before they left the house, I told him, "Don't let anyone encourage you to do anything, because it doesn't take but five minutes to get in trouble, and it can take a lifetime to get out of it." I work at night and he told me he was going to be back later that day before I left for work. But when I left he hadn't made it back yet. I didn't know of a party, but he was supposed to be home at 1:00 A.M. because he had a curfew. When I called to check on him around 1:30 or so, he was home. He didn't stay at the hotel all night like the other kids. The next morning he said something like, "Have you ever wished you could turn back the hands of time and hadn't been somewhere?" Then he started telling me, in pieces, about the party.
Essence.com: Do you ever think back to that day and wish you had done anything differently?
J.B.: This is not something that I've done, but it was poor judgment on his part. He allowed other people to influence how he behaved. If they didn't influence him, then he was just involved in a situation that he shouldn't have been. That wasn't my choice.
Essence.com: What advice do you have for other mothers with children who are incarcerated?
J.B.: If they believe that their child has not done anything wrong, then they have to keep pushing. You just can't give up; you have to keep fighting so that your child doesn't get lost in the system. If you don't stand up for them, then nobody else is going to.
Essence.com: What's helped you the most in getting through this?
J.B.: I'm not a quitter. When we think there's no more hope, then all of a sudden something else does appear. So that's part of what the Lord is giving out: Not to give up hope. One of the biggest things to come out of this is that a lot of people have been praying. If people could do anything for us, more than anything, I'd ask them to pray. It helps a lot.