Dixon appeal thrusts story into national spotlight

In June, when Vanderbilt football recruit Marcus Dixon was sentenced by a judge to a mandatory ten years in prison for aggravated child molestation, the media barely seemed to notice; outside of Rome, Ga. and Nashville, the story barely registered a blip. Eight months later, however, as Dixon's appeal goes before the Supreme Court of Georgia, the story has gone nationwide.

The small minority of those of us who follow Vanderbilt football recruiting were disturbed last February to learn that Pepperell High School football player Marcus Dixon, the Commodores' star signee from the recruiting class of 2003, had been arrested and charged with rape one mere week after signing a national letter-of-intent with Vandy. But aside from us and the good citizenry of Floyd County, Ga., very few took notice.

In June, when Dixon was sentenced by a judge to a mandatory ten years in prison for aggravated child molestation-- once again, the media barely seemed to notice. Outside of Rome, Ga. and Nashville, the story barely registered a blip.

Eight months later, however, as Dixon's appeal goes before the Supreme Court of Georgia, the story has gone nationwide. ABC's Nightline, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and Black Entertainment Network have all jumped in to do features. USA Today and People magazine have written about the case, and more will certainly do so. It's almost a made-for-TV case that touches on the hot issues of race, teenage sexual behavior, preferential treatment for athletes, etc.

If you've been following the story, you know by now that a Floyd County jury acquitted the 6-foot-6, 260-pound defensive lineman of rape and sexual battery, and seemed to determine that the sex between Dixon and his classmate was consensual. But Dixon nevertheless was found guilty of aggravated child molestation, a charge that carried a mandatory ten-year sentence with no chance for parole. It seemed an excessively harsh sentence for engaging in behavior that, although distasteful and morally reprehensible, is all-too-commonplace among high school students.

Dixon's story is heartbreaking on so many levels. On one side there's a young girl, just 15 at the time, whose life was changed by a brief incident that allegedly occurred on the grounds of her high school. Certainly any parent of a daughter can understand why the girl's family would seek justice and retribution.

But on the other side sits Dixon-- barely 18 at the time of the incident, an honors student at Pepperell High, the product of a broken home, adopted by loving parents, so athletically gifted-- who now waits patiently inside the Burriss Correctional Training Facility in Forsyth while his appeal is processed.

Credit a November controversial edition of HBO's program Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel for fanning the flames that brought this story to the national forefront. As the Rome News-Tribune first reported, several of the case's jurors were filled with remorse upon learning their verdict had sentenced Dixon to a decade behind bars.

Yet the Gumbel special hardly presented a "fair and balanced" examination of the facts. It unnecessarily sensationalized the story, painting the town of Rome as a citadel of bigotry. By injecting issues of race, the special only served to cloud the real issues which will decide the case. (Gumbel glossed over the victim's family's allegations that the school system ignored and mishandled prior incidents by Dixon, charges yet to be addressed by a pending civil suit.)

A few weeks after Dixon's arrest last February, but before Dixon's jury trial, Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor David Williams announced that the school would be rescinding its scholarship offer. "Based on the information we now have, it is not in Vanderbilt's best interests to continue our relationship with Mr. Dixon," Williams said.

Still, despite the fact that Dixon will likely never realize his dream of playing college football, members of the Vanderbilt coaching staff have quietly remained supportive of and in contact with their prized signee.

Head coach Bobby Johnson touched on Marcus' situation at a booster gathering last summer. "In most respects he's a fine young man," Johnson said. "He was a good student and a good football player. I think our doors are probably closed to him. He's not graduated from high school yet, because he was suspended from school. It's going to be hard for him, unless they get an appeal.

"But I hope he does get an appeal, and I hope he wins."

Who's to blame for the unconscionably stiff sentence Dixon is now serving out? Not the judge, whose hands were tied by the law; and not the jury, which expressed great regret after Dixon's sentence was meted. Probably the lion's share should be borne by the Georgia State Legislature, which passed the politically popular get-tough-on-crime legislation, but gave little thought given to how it might affect randy high-school-age boys. (Georgia State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who ironically helped push the legislation through the General Assembly, is now one of those working on Dixon's behalf to get it changed.)

Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Donald F. Samuel called the Dixon case "a perfect example of the horrors of mandatory minimum sentences."

"The legislatures apparently don't trust judges and parole boards," said Samuel, "so, sight-unseen, they have decided that regardless of any of the facts, regardless of any mitigating circumstance, in all cases, without exception, 10 years without parole is mandatory."

David Balser, an attorney with the Atlanta firm of McKenna, Long & Aldridge who agreed to represent Dixon pro bono, will bring the appeal before the Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday. As I understand it, the appeal will challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which Dixon was charged. If the Supreme Court upholds the sentencing, Dixon will likely remain a prison inmate well into his late 20's.

Does the case have merit? Balser certainly seems to think so.

"No teenager should be serving ten years in state prison for having a consensual sexual encounter with someone in his own peer group," said Balser in a press release. "Regardless of one's view of whether it is appropriate for teens to engage in volunteer relations, it is unethical to punish someone this severely for what even a jury found to be consensual behavior."

A legal defense fund has been established for Dixon, as well as a website, www.helpmarcus.com.

Vanderbilt supporters will watch with interest as the case plays out -- but hopefully, they will do so not as football fans, but as concerned, compassionate fellow human beings. This case ceased to be about football a long time ago -- it's about two teenagers and their families whose lives have been inalterably, tragically shattered.

Contact Brent at brent@vandymania.com

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