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The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday wrestled with how mandatory minimum sentencing laws treat teenagers who are caught engaging in consensual sex. In the case before the court, Marcus Dwayne Dixon, an 18-year-old high school football player, was accused and acquitted of raping a 15-year-old female classmate. But Dixon was convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape and aggravated child molestation, one of the so-called “seven deadly sins” for which Georgia law requires at least a 10-year prison term. Following the assertion of Dixon’s lawyer that the rape acquittal meant the sex was consensual, some justices sounded sympathetic to Dixon’s plight and troubled at the government’s punishing a widespread teenage activity with a felony statute. 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., who maintained that Dixon used force and injured the girl, responded 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 added. 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 after the incident. 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 be subject to 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 the court sided with Dixon, would other cases in which defendants were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws be in jeopardy? McClellan responded that the court might have to deal with mandatory sentence challenges “on a case by case basis.” 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 by repeating his primary argument — that the latest pronouncement of the Georgia General Assembly on teenage sex occurred in 1996, when the statutory rape law was amended to make it only a misdemeanor for 17- or 18-year-olds to have sex with teens who are less than three years younger than them. 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 his conviction in May. AN ABUNDANCE OF SPECTATORS The 40-minute oral argument took place before seven television cameras, an audience on the World Wide Web and a rare overflow crowd in the courthouse. Three judges from the Georgia Court of Appeals were spotted in the courtroom, and lawyers and clients from cases argued earlier in the morning stayed to watch. Their 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. But he moved in with his white baseball coach at age 10 and was raised by the coach and his wife — Ken and Peri Jones — as one of their sons. A star athlete at Pepperell High School in Rome, Ga., with a 3.96 grade-point average, Dixon had accepted a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University when the incident with the girl occurred last Feb. 10. Dixon’s supporters say the girl flirted with him and consented to sex. At trial a witness claimed the girl said she accused Dixon of rape so that she would not get in trouble with her father, who was described as a racist who had whipped her for smoking. 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 jury acquitted Dixon of four charges: rape, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and sexual battery. But the jury found Dixon guilty of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation. THE RACE FACTOR On Tuesday night, about 50 supporters of Dixon gathered at the Central Presbyterian Church, about a block from the high court, to hold a candlelight vigil. The chief speaker was the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who compared Dixon’s case to others in which black men were treated unfairly by the courts, especially when accused by whites of rape. “If it’d been a black girl, nobody would give a damn,” he said. McClellan and his boss, Floyd District Attorney Leigh E. Patterson, said last week that race did not factor into their decision to prosecute Dixon. The issue of race never came up during Wednesday’s argument. The case is Dixon v. State, No. S04A0072.

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