Marcus Dixon is sitting in jail because of racist injustice. Dixon, a Black teenager on his way to college, is instead serving a 10-year prison sentence for having consensual sex when he was 18 years old with a white girl who was just a few months shy of turning 16. Dixon is from Georgia, and his story conjures up memories of some of the worst chapters of racist bigotry in the U.S.
Dixon 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.
In an op-ed article titled “Old South Lingers in a Legal Lynching,” Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman wrote, “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.” Dixon had an almost 4.0 grade point average and a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University.
But in February 2003 Marcus had sex with a girl who was almost 16. According to reports, she told him that if her father found out he would kill them both, because her father was racist.
Two days later, she accused him of rape. And the stinking decay of racial “justice” from the “Old South” came rising up. The ghosts of the Scottsboro Nine, Emmett Till and numerous other African American men who were victims of racist bigotry hovered close.
In court, however, the principal charge of rape didn’t stand up. Wright Edelman wrote, “In May, a jury of nine whites and three blacks took just 20 minutes to acquit Dixon of rape. There was no forced sex, they concluded.”
The jury was then obliged to consider a lesser charge of “aggravated child molestation.” Aggravated child molestation is a charge for adults who prey on children, not usually for teens who have consensual sex.
“This statute had never before been used to prosecute consensual sex between teens with less than a three-year age difference,” Edelman wrote, adding that “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.”
The jury convicted Dixon of this second charge, thinking it was relatively minor. When the judge announced a mandatory 10-year sentence with no possibility of parole, a number of jurors expressed shock.
Juror Kathy Tippett said she had no idea of the consequences for Dixon. “I really didn’t know,” she said. “I don’t think anyone on there did. We all thought it was a misdemeanor. We all thought he would go home.” Dixon was also found gulilty of a misdemeanor statutory rape charge which carried a punishment of no more than one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. That’s what most jurors thought the child molestation charge carried as well.
“I think about Marcus every day,” said Tippett. “I know I made a mistake. He does not belong in prison. If I had known, I would have held out. I wouldn’t ever have done it because I do not think the punishment fits the crime.”
Civil rights leaders and organizations, along with Marcus’ family, church and friends, are leading a campaign to undo the injustice and to free Marcus Dixon.
Recent actions included a Jan. 21 vigil in Atlanta, leading up to the appeal, which was heard Jan. 23. The court’s decision is expected in the next few months. Over 159,000 signatures have been gathered on an online petition demanding Dixon’s freedom.
The online petition can be signed at www.act4justice.com.
Letters to Marcus Dixon can be sent to: Marcus Dixon, Prisoner 1137365-525128, BCTC, P.O. Box 5849, Forsyth, GA 31029. Donations for legal costs and Dixon’s college education can be sent to: Marcus Dixon Trust, P.O. Box 102812, Atlanta, GA 30368-2812.
Denise Winebrenner Edwards and Terrie Albano contributed to this story.