ATLANTA - The Georgia Legislature will almost certainly take a fresh look next year at laws involving teen sex as a result of this week's ruling in the Marcus Dixon case, but top lawmakers aren't predicting what the result will be.
"It's a very charged political area," said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. "I'm not predicting how this debate will go. I'm not predicting what the resolution will be."
Sen. Charlie Tanksley, R-Marietta, her counterpart in the Senate, said there's no easy answer.
"Do I want my son facing extensive prison sentences for inappropriate behavior of this nature? Probably not. Do I want my daughter adequately protected from inappropriate inducement or predatory behavior? Absolutely," he said. "Where do you draw the proper balance is the challenge for legislators."
Citing conflicts in the law and urging lawmakers to address them, the Georgia Supreme Court this week threw out a 10-year prison sentence imposed on Mr. Dixon, an honor student and star athlete in Rome, for a sexual encounter with an underage girl.
A jury convicted him of statutory rape, which is classified as a misdemeanor in Georgia if the victim is 14 or 15 years old and the accused is no more than three years older than the victim.
In addition, however, the jury convicted him of aggravated child molestation, which is one of Georgia's "seven deadly sins" and carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence.
Statutory rape always includes the act of sexual intercourse. Child molestation is defined as any immoral or indecent act done to or in the presence of a child to arouse or satisfy sexual desires. Child molestation becomes aggravated when it involves injury to the child or the act of sodomy.
The court said the Legislature intended for the lesser charge to fit the facts found by the jury in the case, but said it needs to clarify the law to prevent inconsistent prosecutions in the future.
"Under the statutes as they are now written, it is entirely possible that teenagers could be convicted of aggravated child molestation and receive the concomitant 10-year minimum sentence if they willingly engaged in sexual activity but stop short of the actual act of sexual intercourse, so long as one experienced slight pain or received even minor injuries incidental to the act," the court held.
"When it relates to children having sexual conduct with each other, it is particularly problematical to impose a mandatory 10-year sentence," Ms. Oliver said. But though she acknowledged the Legislature must review the law, she added, "These are very hard, very difficult policy decisions."
Mr. Tanksley said two issues are involved - the technicalities of how the law works and the will of the people.
"I think if you're dealing with a clear-cut situation where you have an obvious sexual predator and aggravated child molestation, I don't believe that the sentence is too severe, and I think an accurate polling of the public would probably reflect that clearly," he said.
"The ambiguity and confusion or ambivalence, both as to the public policy issue and among legislators, comes when there is obviously some degree of consensual sex involved and you're dealing with teenagers who, in many instances, are sexually active beyond our parental preferences or perhaps beyond society's expectations."
The Georgia Legislature's only active police officer, Rep. Victor Hill, D-Riverdale, a candidate for Clayton County sheriff, said mandatory minimum sentences are wrong.
"I'm tough on crime, but I realize every case has different circumstances," he said. "Justice without mercy is no justice at all."