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Atlanta-The Georgia Supreme Court is wrestling with the way that mandatory minimum sentencing laws treat teenagers who are caught engaging in consensual sex. In a case before the court, Marcus Dwayne Dixon, 18, a high school football player, was acquitted of the charge that he raped a 15-year-old female classmate. Dixon was convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape and aggravated child molestation, one of the “seven deadly sins” for which Georgia law requires at least a 10-year prison term. Dixon’s lawyer argued that the rape acquittal meant that the sex was consensual. Some justices sounded sympathetic about Dixon’s plight and troubled at treating teenage sexual activity as a felony. Justice Hugh P. Thompson wondered whether Dixon could find “an escape valve” in the Superior Court Sentence Review Panel, which checks punishments to determine if they are excessive. But he was reminded that the panel may not reduce sentences below a mandatory minimum. “Couldn’t prosecutors be more creative in what you charge?” Presiding Justice Leah Ward Sears asked. Floyd County Assistant District Attorney John F. McClellan Jr. maintained that Dixon used force and injured the girl. He told the justices that his job was to prosecute people for violating all of the laws the state could prove were broken. “You have an obligation to the victims,” McClellan said. Aggravated child molestation is defined as an immoral act in which one touches a child in order to satisfy sexual desires, resulting in injury. The girl in the Dixon case testified that she had been a virgin and that she bled afterward. At times, Sears and others sounded concerned that teenagers engaging in any sexual activity that results in any injury-the statute does not define “injury”-could face 10 years in prison. However, Justice Robert Benham worried about opening a Pandora’s box if the court agreed with Dixon’s argument that his mandatory prison term amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Benham asked if other cases in which defendants were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws would be in jeopardy if the court sided with Dixon. McClellan said the court might have to deal with mandatory sentence challenges case by case. Benham earlier had warned Dixon’s lawyer, David L. Balser of McKenna Long & Aldridge, that courts are “extremely reluctant” to substitute their views for those of the state legislature, especially when considering punishments. Balser responded with his primary argument: The latest pronouncement of the Georgia General Assembly on teenage sex occurred in 1996, when the statutory rape law was amended to make it a misdemeanor for 17- or 18-year-olds to have sex with teens who are less than three years younger than they are. As a result, Balser argued, “Sex between teenagers is a misdemeanor and not a 10-year felony.” He asked the court to reverse Dixon’s conviction and sentencing on aggravated child molestation and send the case back to the trial court for sentencing on statutory rape only-which would be at most one year in prison. Dixon has been in prison since May. The 40-minute oral argument took place before seven television cameras, an Internet audience and a rare overflow crowd in the courthouse. Wide interest The interest was undoubtedly sparked by national news and sports programs that have reported on the case as a story that mixed sports, sex, alleged rape and alleged race discrimination in a small Southern town. Dixon, who is black, was born to a drug-addicted, recidivist mother and an absent father. He moved in with his white baseball coach at age 10 and was raised by the coach and his wife. The girl is white. A star athlete at Pepperell High School in Rome, Ga., with a 3.96 grade-point average, Dixon had accepted a scholarship to Vanderbilt University when the incident occurred on Feb. 10, 2003. Dixon’s supporters say the girl flirted with him and consented to sex. At trial, a witness claimed the girl had said that she accused Dixon of rape so that she would not get in trouble with her father. The girl said at trial that Dixon tracked her down in a classroom trailer that she was cleaning as part of her duties in an after-school job, asked if she was a virgin, grabbed her arms, unbuttoned her pants and raped her on a table. A Floyd County jury acquitted Dixon of four charges: rape, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and sexual battery.

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