Like Genarlow Wilson, Joshua Widner received a mandatory 10-year sentence for nonforcible sexual activity with a fellow teenager.
Like Wilson, Widner argued through his lawyer at the Supreme Court of Georgia that his sentence was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.
Widner last year lost in a unanimous decision from the high court, while Wilson last month prevailed in a 4-3 ruling. One key difference between the cases, the court's majority said, was that Widner was about 4 1/2 years older than the 14-year-old girl involved in his case, while Wilson was about two years older than the 15-year-old girl in his case.
But on Monday, a Henry County, Ga., judge signed off on a plea deal that will allow Widner out of prison within days, less than five years into his sentence.
Given that the high court seemed to go out of its way to show how Widner could not benefit from Wilson's case, Henry County District Attorney Tommy K. Floyd was under no legal pressure caused by the Wilson decision.
"I don't want to get into that," Floyd said when asked in a brief telephone interview Monday about the effect of the Wilson ruling on his decision.
"We thought it was the right thing to do is really all I can tell you, as did the victim and the victim's mother," said Floyd, who sat perched in the jury box during Monday's calendar call.
But it seems unlikely that the timing was coincidental.
"This decision by the state occurred about a month ago," Assistant District Attorney Blair D. Mahaffey told Henry County Superior Court Judge Arch W. McGarity at Monday's hearing. "Mr. Floyd and I began talking about things that had been going on in this case and other cases around the state."
One of Widner's attorneys, J. Scott Key, said Mahaffey approached him the Monday after the Supreme Court issued its decision in favor of Wilson. "He just felt bad about what had happened," Key said after Monday's hearing.
"They approached me," Key said of prosecutors. "I wish I could say I ran in there and strong-armed them."
Key filed an extraordinary motion for a new trial. McGarity granted the motion earlier this month, permitting Widner to enter a new plea. On Monday, Widner pleaded guilty to child molestation and statutory rape -- charges that while serious, do not carry the mandatory 10-year minimum attached to the aggravated child molestation conviction. For the new charges, he received a sentence of 10 years to serve four, with credit for time served. He's to have no contact with the young woman involved in his case or her family.
The deal taken by Widner isn't much better than prosecutors offered Wilson, as Wilson's case received national attention this past summer, with civil rights groups calling for his release.
Wilson's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein of Atlanta, said Monday that prosecutors continued to offer Wilson a deal in which he would have served five years in jail. Widner has been incarcerated for about 4 1/2 years, since March 2003, according to Key.
Widner still will need to register as a sex offender, McGarity explained to him. That was a primary complaint by Wilson's supporters about his sentence.
Asked about the sex offender registry, Widner's lawyers said they didn't think they should look a gift horse in the mouth.
And while McGarity conducted the standard plea colloquy with Widner on Monday, explaining the rights that Widner was giving up by pleading guilty, he told Widner "they'd have to psychologically evaluate" the young man if he changed his mind about agreeing to the deal.
McGarity said in court Monday that Widner's was the first extraordinary motion for a new trial that he's ever granted in his 12-year career on the bench -- and that he had indicated previously he would grant it if the victim agreed.
"I feel like somebody needs to step in," McGarity said from the bench.
According to the 2006 Supreme Court decision upholding his convictions and sentence, Widner was 18 when he convinced a 14-year-old girl "to agree to have sex with him and another male friend at the same time" in December 2002. Widner engaged in acts of both oral sex and sexual intercourse with the girl, according to that opinion.
Key said last year that Widner and the girl had met at a bar or restaurant in Griffin. The girl snuck out of her house and met Widner at his home on the night of the incident, Key said then. Both Widner and the young woman refused to identify to authorities the other man involved, according to Key.
Floyd said last year that the girl's mother had previously spoken with Widner about leaving her daughter alone -- a conversation Key said his client denied ever occurred -- and was the one who called police to report Widner. The DA's office never made a plea offer before trial, Floyd said Monday.
Another of Widner's lawyers, Mercer University Law assistant professor Sarah L. Gerwig-Moore, said the young woman's parents were "driving the train" in the case. The young girl said all along that she had lied to Widner about her age and didn't want him in jail, said Gerwig-Moore.
But a jury convicted him, and he found no relief at the Georgia Supreme Court. In June 2006, the court issued a unanimous decision shooting down his appeal.
Justice Harold D. Melton's opinion characterized Widner's cruel and unusual punishment argument as asking for "special treatment." It acknowledged that within days a new statute would become the law -- making a person convicted of aggravated child molestation based upon an act of sodomy guilty of only a misdemeanor when the victim is at least 13 but less than 16 years of age and the convicted person is 18 years of age or younger and no more than four years older than the victim. But, wrote Melton, because this revision wouldn't go into effect until after Widner was sentenced, it couldn't help him.
When Bernstein came before the Supreme Court to argue Wilson's case in July, she attempted to draw distinctions between the underlying facts in the Widner and Wilson cases while admitting her "ideal" outcome would be if the court overruled its decision in Widner.
Wilson's case stemmed from a New Year's Eve party in a motel room in December 2003, when Wilson was 17. A jury acquitted Wilson of charges that he raped a 17-year-old girl but convicted him of aggravated child molestation based on what the Supreme Court's majority called "consensual" oral sex with a 15-year-old girl.
In its opinion upholding a habeas court's decision that Wilson's 10-year sentence was cruel and unusual punishment, the court didn't back away from its decision in the Widner case. Instead, it distinguished it, noting that while Widner was 18 1/2 years old at the time of the incident in question, the young lady involved had turned 14 only five days before, making the 2006 amendment to the child molestation law inapplicable to Widner's case.
Gerwig-Moore said that she was happy for Wilson, but she clearly was dismayed by how the court treated her client's case in its opinion. She said she has no idea where the court got Widner's date of birth, which she said was available in neither the record in his case nor on the Department of Corrections' Web site.
In contrast with Widner's case, which has gotten minimal media attention, Wilson's case was high profile, with Wilson getting support from politicians and editorial boards. Key said his approach to the Widner case has been to make a good argument, write a good brief and trust the legal system to work, but given Bernstein's success with her client's high-profile case, he'll reconsider how he approaches certain cases.
For his part, Widner is expected to go live with his grandparents in Hampton. Among the handful of family and friends in the courtroom Monday was Widner's grandmother, Betty Norton.
She said she has followed Wilson's case and is "proud for him" and his family. Norton said she's seen some fairness in following her grandson's case -- and some unfairness, too, noting that her grandson will need to register as a sex offender.
But Monday was clearly a happy day for Widner's lawyers and family, who exchanged hugs and handshakes after the hearing. "I have a God that's very powerful," said Norton, "and he does answer prayers."