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ARTICLE: Court overturns Dixon child molestation conviction
By BILL RANKIN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/03/04
The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday reversed the conviction of a Floyd County football star and student who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexual offenses against a 15-year-old classmate.
Marcus Dixon was returned to Floyd County from prison Monday afternoon and released after processing. Floyd County Superior Court Judge Walter Matthews ruled that Dixon could be released on his own recognizance, without posting any monetary bail.
Matthews said that while on bond, Dixon may not leave Floyd County, must check in with probation authorites daily and must stay away from Pepperell High School and from the 15-year-old girl in the case.
Upon his release from the Floyd County Jail at 6 p.m., Dixon said, "I'm thankful to be out. I'm thankful to all the people who helped me. And I'm just glad to be home."
About 40 supporters, including family members and friends, gathered at the jail for his release. The family departed in a Ford Expedition, with Marcus Dixon at the wheel.
"Marcus is thrilled to be with his family, and we're thrilled to have him out of jail," said Dixon's attorney, David Balser. "We did not think that he'd be out this quickly, and we're extremely grateful the wheels of justice moved as quickly as they have today."
In a 4-3 decision, the court overturned the aggravated child molestation conviction against Dixon. The ruling, written by Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, said "the General Assembly intended to punish Dixon's conduct as a misdemeanor statutory rape rather than child molestation."
The ruling will lower substantially Dixon's prison time. Aggravated child molestation carries a mandatory 10-year sentence. Dixon's conviction for statutory rape, which still stands, carries a maximum one-year sentence.
Ken and Peri Jones, Dixon's legal guardians since he was 12, were jubilant over news of the ruling.
Ken Jones said at a Monday afternoon press conference he talked to Dixon this morning over the telephone.
"Marcus was crying. I was crying. We was both doing the dance," said an emotional, teary-eyed Jones. Jones said he promised to buy Dixon "a big double bacon cheeseburger as soon as he got out."
Jones added, "You'll see in a few years he's going to be something. They've set a young man free who's really going to make something of himself."
Peri Jones broke down when noting that Dixon has been held in a maximum-security prison. About a week ago, his spirits were as low as they'd ever been and he wondered if he would live through his prison term, she said.
"There's no way I can tell you how excited and proud we are he's going to be home," she said. "It's been hard. . . . We're definitely going to give him a party."
Dixon's lawyer, David Balser, a business litigator who took on the case for free, applauded the Georgia Supreme Court for "correcting an injustice."
"It's a great day for Marcus," Balser said at the press conference at his law firm, McKenna Long & Aldridge. "It's a great day for justice in this state."
Dixon was 18 at the time of the offense with a 3.96 grade point average. His football scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University was revoked after his arrest. His case drew national publicity and strong criticism from the NAACP. Dixon is African-American; the 15-year-old girl is white.
After learning of Monday's ruling, Floyd County District Attorney Leigh Patterson said, "We obviously agree with the dissent." She said her office will ask the court to reconsider its decision, a motion that can be filed within 10 days.
Floyd prosecutors had alleged Dixon forcibly raped the 10th-grader in a trailer on the campus of Pepperrell High School. But Dixon's defense lawyers maintained the sex was consensual and that the victim fabricated the rape story to avoid trouble with her father.
After hearing the evidence during the May 2003 trial, the jury acquitted Dixon of rape, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and sexual battery. But it convicted him of aggravated child molestation and statutory rape.
"Although the jury acquitted Dixon of rape, this means only that the state failed to prove the element of force beyond a reasonable doubt, and not that the activity was wholly consensual," Fletcher wrote.
Fletcher also wrote that Georgia's statutory rape and child molestation statutes are part of a legislative framework aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse.
A person commits statutory rape when having sex with anyone under the age of 16. The offense is a misdemeanor if the victim is 14 or 15 and when the defendant is no more than three years older than the victim — facts that apply to Dixon's case.
Aggravated child molestation is committed when someone sexually molests someone under the age of 16 and injures the child. In this case, evidence showed that the 15-year-old suffered slight injuries and bruising.
"Reading these statutes together shows a clear legislative intent to prosecute the conduct that the jury determined to have occurred in this case as misdemeanor statutory rape," Fletcher wrote.
Fletcher also called on the Legislature to examine Dixon's case. The court's majority urged lawmakers to "make a more recognizable distinction between statutory rape, child molestation and the other sexual crimes, and to clarify the sort of conduct that will qualify for the 10-year minimum sentence accompanying a conviction for aggravated child molestation."
Joining Fletcher in the majority were Justices Leah Ward Sears, Carol Hunstein and Robert Benham.
Writing in dissent, Justice Harris Hines said his colleagues in the majority "cannot determine what the jury concluded about the facts of this case. It can only determine whether there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Dixon's conduct constituted the crimes of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation."
The verdicts of acquittal on the other serious charges, Hines added, do not necessarily show that prosecutors failed to prove those charges. Instead, they may reflect a compromise or lenience by the jury.
"Clearly, when, as here, the sexual act involves injury to the victim, the General Assembly intended that the aggravated child molestation statute apply," wrote Hines, joined by Justices George Carley and Hugh Thompson.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) praised the majority's ruling.
"This is a great victory for Georgians," said Brooks, who has condemned the outcome of Dixon's case. "Our highest court has said the legislative intent was to protect our children from predators, not to police relationships among our children. I hope that prosecutors of this state have learned a lesson from overcharging in this case."
Dixon began serving his 10-year sentence shortly after his conviction in May 2003.
-- Staff writer Norman Arey and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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