Genarlow Wilson spent New Year's Eve 2003 at a wild hotel bash with a group of fellow teens in Atlanta. After the party-which involved sex, alcohol and a notorious videotape-he and five other boys were charged with child molestation under a Georgia law that made having oral sex with anyone under 16 a felony. (Since then, the law has been repealed.) Wilson, then 17, had engaged in consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl.
Refusing to take a plea deal and be branded a sex offender for life, the honor student and star athlete was slapped with a ten-year prison sentence. He served two years behind bars. On Friday, October 26, hours after the Georgia Supreme Court said his sentence was too harsh, Wilson, now 21, walked out of prison and into the arms of his family.
Here, in his first print interview, he talks to ESSENCE.com about the night that started it all, his time in prison and what he plans to do for the rest of his life.
ESSENCE.COM: How was your weekend?
GENARLOW WILSON: It was great. I'm really excited about being home and trying to get used to everything.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you find out that you were going to be released?
WILSON: Someone said it on the radio. I actually couldn't believe it, though, because in June I went through something similar when the courts ruled in my favor. But my release was blocked because the State appealed. So I was like, "I'll believe it when I see it." Then I was escorted up to the warden's office and he told me the Supreme Court ruled in my favor. We were just waiting to hear from my attorney, and then they gave me the news that the State wasn't going to appeal and that I'd be released.
ESSENCE.COM: What have you been doing since you've been home?
WILSON: I've been getting a lot of visits from my family, from a few friends. But I've mostly been spending time with my mother and my sister. That's what I missed the most, spending time with my family and just being able to lay in my own bed and eat when I want to and basically just live by my own accord.
ESSENCE.COM: What's next for you?
WILSON: I'm definitely looking forward to going to college. I want to try to get in as soon as possible-I hope by January, but if not, whenever I can get in and wherever I can go I'll just be grateful for it. I want to major in sociology. I feel like I would fit perfectly in that area just because of my experience and what I've been through.
ESSENCE.COM: Any particular school?
WILSON: No, not really. I just want to go somewhere where I'll be able to feel comfortable, and where they won't be so judgmental so I can have a chance to just establish myself.
ESSENCE.COM: Is that something you're worried about, being judged?
WILSON: Well, for the most part my incarceration made me a stronger person and a more ambitious person. So I definitely plan on succeeding. Especially with having so many people supporting me and coming to my defense; I don't want to disappoint them. I feel like failure's not an option. I also have higher expectations for myself, and I feel like I've matured.
ESSENCE.COM: You were in jail for such a long time. Most people in your situation would be angry and resentful about having served all that time. How are you feeling about that?
WILSON: For the most part I'm not angry or bitter. I can't let my frustrations get the best of me. It's not going to make matters any easier for me. Either way it goes, it's still going to be hard for me. But now I get to start over. It's a new beginning, and I'm looking forward to it. I've turned all the negative energy into something positive.
ESSENCE.COM: But you still must have a lot of emotions having gone through all of this. How are you dealing with them? Are you seeking counseling, for example?
WILSON: No. I've basically just been talking with my family and telling them what I had to go through. And even doing interviews, like how I'm talking to you, is helping me be at ease with myself because I'm comfortable talking about my situation.
ESSENCE.COM: Why were you so intent in fighting your sentence, instead of just taking a plea deal like the other young men did?
WILSON: I couldn't allow myself to be portrayed and be cast aside as a sex offender. I love and adore my little sister, and I want to have kids of my own someday, and as a sex offender you can't be around little kids.
ESSENCE.COM: Have you spoken to any of the other young men who were arrested for the same incident, the ones who did take the deal?
WILSON: I have. I've just been encouraging them to keep the faith and hold their composure. I hope my situation does benefit theirs.
ESSENCE.COM: Have you spoken to the young woman involved?
WILSON: No, I haven't. Her mom spoke out for a minute saying that they wanted me to come home, but I haven't heard anything from her.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you feel that your two years in prison was worth making a point and avoiding that label?
WILSON: Yes. And I'm glad that no one else will have to go through what I went through. Maybe one day I might have prevented my son or my nephews or somebody else from getting caught up in a similar situation.
ESSENCE.COM: What was prison like for you? How did the other prisoners treat you?
WILSON: I had a lot of support. But just like you have a lot of support, you always have people against you as well that don't want to see you do good because they're in a bad situation.
ESSENCE.COM: So you weren't picked on for being so young?
WILSON: No. And I mostly stayed to myself. When you stay to yourself, you can't go wrong. I read a lot to help educate myself and to put my mind at ease-nonfiction books, and books about your mind and how to deal with patience. I read The Purpose Driven Life, a lot of James Patterson and Eric Jerome Dickey books. Basically, anything. I have an open mind, and I read anything that caught my interest.
ESSENCE.COM: What helped you get by?
WILSON: Just knowing that one day I'd be able to return home to my family and have a chance to pursue all that I wanted to do.
ESSENCE.COM: Your mother told me that the morning after the New Year's Eve party, you expressed regret about it. Did you feel that things had gotten out of hand that night?
WILSON: I know that the decisions I made were not the best, and I did stuff that I probably shouldn't have done that night. But I can't go back and change anything, and for the most part I recognize my mistake. But at the time, when somebody called and told me that the police had come to the hotel, it was a big shock.
ESSENCE.COM: I hear the tape from the party is hard to watch. What were you all thinking?
WILSON: Yeah, at the time we were just living in the moment. We didn't know that what we were doing was breaking the law. We were just being teenagers.
ESSENCE.COM: Did you all plan to have sex beforehand?
WILSON: No, that wasn't planned. It kind of just happened.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you want to use your story to become an activist or teach teenagers about this type of thing?
WILSON: Definitely. I plan on being a mentor and helping people learn from my experience and my mistakes. I've learned (you have) to think before you act, and I would advise people to be cautious.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you feel about the judicial system now?
WILSON: At times, because we've had so many ups and downs, I was very confused. I didn't know what would happen. But after they decided to rule in my favor, I believe in it again.
ESSENCE.COM: Anything else you want to say to those who have been following the story?
WILSON: I just want to thank everyone who supported me and kept me in their prayers.
Credit: AP Photo/W. A. Harewood