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The night that justice got mugged in Georgia

Friday, January 23, 2004

Marcus Dixon has been sitting in a Georgia prison long enough to know that antiquated laws go hand in hand with antiquated justice. At 18, the former Pepperell High School football star is living an aspect of the American experience he'd read about in history books and newspapers.

Dixon sat quietly in criminal court last year as a prosecutor painted a picture of a man who bore a closer resemblance to Bigger Thomas, the illiterate brute in Richard Wright's novel "Native Son," than the scholar-athlete who scrupulously maintained a 3.96 grade-point average and earned a football scholarship to Vanderbilt.

A mixed-race jury found the comparisons silly, too. They rejected the prosecutor's hoary oratory, slathered with subliminal appeals to racial prejudice. The jury found Dixon not guilty of rape, sexual battery, false imprisonment and aggravated assault. It was a thorough rebuke of the prosecution's case.

Still, Dixon was barely 18 when he had consensual sex on school property with a classmate who was a few months shy of 16. Believing that it was being faithful to the letter of an antiquated law, the jury slapped Dixon with a guilty verdict for "child molestation" and statutory rape. Sex between a minor and an 18-year-old is still considered statutory rape in Georgia, even if it happens in every parked car at the local drive-in every night. By contrast, the age of consent for sex with an adult in Pennsylvania is 16.

The jurors assumed the judge would give Dixon a stern lecture about the joys of abstinence before sending him home with a self-administering chastity belt. Their intention was to end a grotesque legal spectacle that played more like a deleted scene from "Birth of a Nation" than a serious prosecution of a "sexual predator."

Instead, the judge handed Marcus Dixon a 10-year sentence consistent with penalties meted out to those convicted of one of Georgia's "seven deadly sins" laws. Claiming that his hands were tied by the tyranny of mandatory minimum sentencing legislation passed a decade ago, the judge blamed the Legislature for any injustice committed in his courtroom that day.

If he had it to do over again, Marcus Dixon would probably choose abstinence. Or sex with an older woman. Maybe even sex with someone of the same race.

Vanderbilt withdrew its scholarship. Dixon's adoptive parents, a saintly white couple, exhausted their life savings trying to defend him. Consensual sex with a white girl in Georgia cost Dixon a decade of his life, a bright academic future and, quite possibly, a lucrative career in the NFL.

Still, it isn't an injustice that has gone unnoticed. Two days ago, Dixon's lawyer argued before Georgia's Supreme Court that the sentence handed to his client violates his constitutional rights. The court will rule on the validity of his appeal within 90 days.

In a state still deeply divided along racial lines, there's a growing consensus that 10 years in prison for consensual sex between teenagers indeed constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Unless the prosecutor plans to go after all of Georgia's teenagers caught groping and having sex, Dixon's case will always smack of selective prosecution.

The case against Marcus Dixon had an undeniably racist patina that no amount of "color doesn't matter in Georgia, anymore " rhetoric can push aside. Fortunately, a growing plurality of citizens of all colors agrees that something went terribly wrong the day Dixon was handed a sentence that was more than half the length of his young life.

So Marcus Dixon continues to sit quietly in a prison cell, waiting patiently for justice to catch up with Georgia law. Well-spoken and polite to a fault, he allows himself the luxury of believing justice isn't very far off.


Tony Norman can be reached at: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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