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Georgia’s Supreme Court Reverses 10-Year Sentence

Times Staff Writer

Georgia’s Supreme Court on Monday reversed the most serious conviction against Marcus Dixon, a high school football star who received a 10-year prison sentence for having sex with an underage girl.

The case drew national attention, with supporters of Dixon -- who is black -- charging he had been overzealously prosecuted because of racial tensions in his north Georgia hometown of Rome. The 15-year-old girl who had accused him of rape is white; Dixon was 18 at the time.

A jury last year acquitted Dixon of rape. But he was convicted of statutory rape, which carries a maximum one-year-sentence, and aggravated child molestation, a charge that carries a mandatory 10-year term under Georgia law. Afterward, several jurors protested, saying they had not intended to impose such a harsh punishment.

In its 4-3 ruling Monday, the high court overturned the aggravated child molestation conviction but let the second conviction stand.

Dixon’s legal guardians wept with relief at the news. “The warden called up the house, and [Marcus] said: ‘Pops, I’m coming home,’ ” said Kenneth Jones, who had coached Dixon in baseball when he was 10. “He started crying and I started crying,” Jones said.

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By Monday evening, Dixon was home with his family. The district attorney of Floyd County has 10 days to ask Georgia’s Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling. District Atty. Leigh Patterson told the Rome News-Tribune that she planned to file a such a motion.

Born to a drug-addicted mother, Dixon moved in with Ken and Peri Jones at the age of 12 and became a standout football player and straight-A student at Pepperell High School. He had received a full scholarship to play at Vanderbilt University when he was convicted last May.

As his appeal progressed through the court system, Dixon became the focus of national attention. His case was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Ministers and civil rights leaders rallied in support of Dixon outside the Supreme Court, and 667,000 people signed an online petition supporting him. Throughout the winter, the Joneses -- who are white -- spoke powerfully about race relations in Rome.

In issuing the majority opinion Monday, Chief Justice Norman Fletcher said that Dixon should have been punished only for the lesser crime, statutory rape, a misdemeanor. He has already served the one-year sentence for that charge.

In 1995, Georgia legislators imposed tough mandatory minimum sentences on violent felonies, including aggravated child molestation, which occurs when a child under 16 is hurt during a sexual encounter with an adult.

But Fletcher said that lawmakers had not intended the child molestation law to be used in cases like Dixon’s, and that in fact they had acted in 1996 to lessen the penalties for sex between teenagers.

In a sharply critical dissenting opinion, Justice Harris Hines argued that by opting for a lesser conviction, the majority chose to override state law and ignore the jury’s verdict.

“The majority summarily dismisses the harm proved to have been suffered by the teen-aged victim as ‘slight vaginal injuries,’ ” the dissent read. “The majority declares injuries, which make the act of child molestation aggravated, to be irrelevant.”

In Rome, the case also opened up deep divisions.

As a child, Dixon caught Jones’ eye because of his athletic ability. The youngster gradually became a member of the Jones family and moved into their house in the suburb of Lindale. At Pepperell High School, which is 94% white, the star defensive lineman moved easily among the different groups at school.

After Dixon was arrested, some parents charged that school authorities had been so supportive of his athletic career that they’d overlooked a pattern of sexual behavior -- he had been suspended twice, once for exposing himself and once for allegedly touching a girl against her will. The 15-year-old girl involved in the case is suing the school district, charging that officials failed to act after Dixon’s earlier violations.

But others said the case was one of overzealous prosecution.

Alvin Jackson, former president of the Rome chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said the case had churned up long-hidden veins of racism that run through Rome.

At the end of a “very jubilant” day, Jackson warned that Dixon should get far away from Rome before starting his new life.

“I don’t think his chances would be good here. It’s not safe,” Jackson said. “When he goes somewhere else, gets a new start, people will support him.”


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