`Two strikes' travesty

March 22, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Marcus Dixon, 19, is unusual. He is black, but his (adoptive) parents are white. A star athlete in high school, he is 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs about 265 pounds. And with a 3.96 GPA, he scored 1,200-plus on the SAT. Any one of those factors would make him a standout; the combination is rare, indeed.

So it is no surprise that his 15-year prison sentence, which grew out of a prosecution for rape, has drawn national attention. Because of the charges, he was thrown out of high school just before he was expected to graduate. His football scholarship to Vanderbilt University, which prides itself on attracting scholar athletes, was rescinded. His future, once so promising, has soured.

But Mr. Dixon is no poster boy for mob justice. He didn't land in prison because a predominantly white jury in the Old South wanted to punish him. The story of his grossly unfair sentence is as unusual as everything else in his life.

It is a story of unintended consequences, of a public sick of violent predators, of a Democratic governor up for re-election who was determined that no Republican competitor would portray him as "soft on crime." In 1994, Gov. Zell Miller proposed a tough "two strikes" mandatory sentencing law.

To most Georgians (including me), the law seemed a good idea. The state's prison system was releasing violent felons after most served little more than half their sentences. And judges varied wildly in their notions of justice; rural judges tended to give much longer prison sentences than urban judges.

Unlike the "three strikes" laws in some states, Mr. Miller's "two strikes" proposal was supposed to ensnare only the worst offenders. It requires 10 years, without parole, for any felon convicted of any of seven violent crimes, and it mandates life in prison without parole for a second offense. So voters overwhelmingly endorsed Mr. Miller's proposal, writing his legislation into the state constitution.

In February 2003, Mr. Dixon, then 18, was charged with rape, statutory rape, sexual battery, false imprisonment, aggravated child molestation and aggravated assault for allegedly raping a 15-year-old schoolmate in a trailer used as a classroom. However, the jury - nine whites, three blacks - didn't buy her testimony. They acquitted Mr. Dixon on the rape charge; in fact they acquitted him on all charges that suggested force.

But prosecutors had employed a common tactic: loading up the charges to increase the chances that one or two might stick. And that's what happened.

Because the girl was three months shy of her 16th birthday (Georgia's statutory age of consent), the jury found Mr. Dixon guilty of statutory rape, a misdemeanor. (Floyd County Superior Court Judge Walter Matthews sentenced him to five years, which could be served on probation.) They also found him guilty of aggravated child molestation, a crime that grows out of injury to a child during sexual abuse. Under the law, Mr. Dixon was an adult, and the girl was a child.

Several jurors later said they had no idea that the aggravated child molestation charge was a 10-year felony. "There were a lot of people very upset in the jury room when we found out," said juror Kathy Tippett. "I cried."

The Georgia Legislature ought to reconsider the "two strikes" laws, but it is unlikely to do so. Even in an era of falling crime rates, politicians are reluctant to do anything that might suggest leniency toward criminals.

But there is hope that Mr. Dixon's harsh sentence will be overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court. If Mr. Dixon didn't commit rape - and a Floyd County jury says he didn't - he has no business spending any more time behind bars.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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