Old South Lingers in a Legal Lynching

There is a boy in Georgia who almost beat the odds. An African American born to a 15-year-old, drug-addicted mother and an absent father, Marcus Dixon nonetheless went on to become an honor student and all-state football star. His football skills, 3.96 grade point average and 1,200 score on his SAT won him a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University.

Marcus, 19, was supposed to enter Vanderbilt last fall. Instead, he is serving a 10-year prison sentence with no chance of parole for having consensual sex when he was 18 years old with a white girl who was three months shy of 16. He is the only person in Georgia history this close in age to his victim to be convicted of "aggravated child molestation," a charge that was intended to protect children from predatory adults, not imprison teenagers for having sex with other teenagers.

That such a promising young man could be sucked into the prison pipeline and become another African American statistic speaks volumes about blacks' vulnerability and about their disparate treatment in the justice system. From 1999 to 2000, there were 791,600 black men in jail or prison, compared with just 603,000 black men in higher education.

And even though nearly 50 years have passed since Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, Dixon's case raises eerie echoes of the old Southern obsession with miscegenation.

Marcus was raised in Rome, Ga., by his partly disabled grandmother. With her blessing, a local white Little League coach, Ken Jones, and his wife, Peri, became Marcus' legal guardians when he was 11, and he became part of their family, which includes a teenage son and daughter. Marcus did not drink, smoke, use drugs or get in trouble. He sang in the high school chorus and worked and volunteered at the YMCA. Universities came calling; two boxes full of recruiting letters still rest beside his bed at home.

Then, in February 2003, Marcus had sex with a girl who was almost 16, a virgin. Two days later, she accused him of rape. Investigators didn't give either of them a lie detector test or look for the condom Marcus said he used and threw away.

"I didn't believe him," the investigator explained.

But the charge didn't stand up. In May, a jury of nine whites and three blacks took just 20 minutes to acquit Marcus of rape. There was no forced sex, they concluded. They then were obliged to consider a lesser charge of "aggravated child molestation" -- a charge that was applicable even if the sex was consensual. This statute had never before been used to prosecute consensual sex between teens with less than a three-year age difference, and a majority of states have passed "Romeo and Juliet" statutes -- which deal with teen sex when both partners are close in age -- for exactly these types of cases. Later, several jurors said they thought the charge was minor and were shocked when the judge announced the mandatory 10-year sentence.

The case has been appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, and arguments were heard Wednesday. Marcus has already missed his high school graduation and lost his scholarship. If the conviction is not overturned, you can almost hear the death knell ringing for this young man's future. Once out of prison, he would have a felony record and be required to register as a sex offender wherever he lives, effectively killing his aspiration to be a teacher and coach.

The racism and disparate treatment that underlie this case are widespread. In 1997, although they made up only 34% of U.S. teens, minorities represented 67% of youths in detention. For those charged with violent offenses, blacks are jailed nine times more often than whites. Marcus' case brings back memories of all the black men who were lynched, executed or imprisoned for having relationships with white women, and it recalls the way black males are perceived to this day.

Almost 50 years may have passed since Emmett Till was lynched, but the unjust treatment of African American males goes on. No example could be more egregious or heartbreaking than that of Marcus Dixon.

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