Back in 2005, Genarlow Wilson was a 17-year old high school football and track star, homecoming king, and B student enjoying his senior year in Douglasville, Georgia, until a wild night of underage partying and teen sex turned his dream life into a legal nightmare.
He never got the chance to stroll across the stage and accept his diploma on graduation day like he’d long dreamed and had worked so hard to do. Instead weeks before, he was marched out of his high school in handcuffs as the unexpected – and arguably unlikely – poster child of a controversial Georgia law that critics asserted criminalized typical teenage sexual exploration. Now, well over a decade after a firestorm of media coverage about his fight for freedom sparked national outcry, Wilson, 36, is a full-time educator and dad of three. He says he’s had lots of time to mature and after years of intensive therapy he is finally ready to tell his story, in his own words, to the masses for the first time. He hopes it’ll help others – especially young people – learn from the youthful mistakes that nearly derailed his life forever.
“For the past 15 years people have heard about my case, but from the perspective of others; now it’s time for me to share my truth, to share my whole story from my perspective in my own words,” says Wilson, who is currently working on his memoir, an emotional tell-all about his very provocative and miraculous story of regret, redemption, and reentry. He is now booking speaking engagements and presentations through his newly-launched website, GenarlowSpeaks.com.
“Most people have heard about me from the perspective of others; it’s taken me all of these years to realize that this is my story, a story that only I can tell,” he says “And now, after much reflection and lots of time to grow up and mature, I am ready to share my story with the world! And oh, what a story it is!”
In 2005, Wilson was charged with aggravated child molestation and eventually given a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old peer, a girl barely two years younger than him. It happened at a wild New Year’s Eve party packed with fellow high school friends at a seedy local motel. The next morning he would learn that under Georgia law he was considered an adult and that the girl was not old enough to consent to any sexual contact. As a result, he was branded an adult sexual predator and arrested.
Having no previous criminal record and with deep conviction that the encounter had been consensual, Wilson refused a plea deal from prosecutors that would have shortened his prison time but would have meant spending the rest of his life on the National Sex Offender Registry list and all of the repercussions that come with it. He took his chances with a jury trial, but with a recording of the incident for which he was unaware of at the time shown as evidence in court, jurors had no choice but to convict him. He was sentenced to a decade behind bars, the mandatory minimum in Georgia.
His story was relatively obscure until an in-depth feature story detailing his case appeared in the January 2006 issue of Atlanta magazine. The article sparked a frenzy of national and international media coverage documenting his highly-publicized two-year legal fight for freedom; including coverage in the New York Times, L.A. Times, CNN, NPR, BBC, ABC Prime Time, The Today Show, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, ESPN, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, HDNet, Ebony, and Essence, among countless other outlets.
Propelled by the passion and tireless support of his mother Juanessa Bennett, the legal acumen and dogged determination of Atlanta attorney B.J. Bernstein and public outcry spurred by media reports of his case, his quest for freedom made it all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. On October 26, 2007, the high court deemed Wilson’s sentence “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordered his immediate release from prison. His case inspired the Georgia legislature to change the law, classifying consensual sexual acts between teens as a misdemeanor, instead of the felony that unfortunately remained on Wilson’s record well after his release.
“A lot of people think my story ended like a fairy tale when I walked out of prison that day in October 2007, but little did they know – and I didn’t at the time either – that the second leg of my sentence was just beginning,” remembers Wilson, of his release from Al Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga. “It took seven years, seven long years, for me to get that felony off my record and many people discouraged me from even trying. My success was almost 100 percent due to my own personal drive and passion to get this off my record, but it still affects me to this day in terms of housing, employment, and how I support my family. Unfortunately, I know the real truth, the dirty truth, about ‘reentry,’ back into society after you’ve gone to prison. It’s the scarlet letter that keeps on giving!”
With the generous support of former syndicated urban radio personality Tom Joyner, Wilson received an academic scholarship and ultimately graduated from prestigious Atlanta HBCU, Morehouse College. Now a former legal assistant for the city of Atlanta, life coach, and Black male mentoring program assistant, Wilson works full-time in education. He has dedicated his life to being a caring and attentive dad and educating young people about the power of making better choices, taking control of their lives, and avoiding the pitfalls that nearly ruined his life.
Wilson says he believes youth, parents, government leaders, educators, legal professionals, activists, and anyone concerned about equity and justice in “post-George Floyd America,” can benefit from his very emotional, personal, and provocative message about juvenile justice, social justice, criminal justice reform, mental health, Black fatherhood, fatherlessness and his sobering experience with reentry. “Before the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ ever existed, thousands across the country, and the world, sent a message to the powers that be my life mattered,” he says. “They let me know at my lowest point, that I am better than the worse mistake I’d made as a young naive teenager. I will forever be grateful for being given a second chance. Now I’m ready to pay it forward.”