Last week, VandySports.com interviewed Bryant Gumbel to comment on the Vanderbilt-related aspects of the HBO/Real Sports investigative piece they began airing last Tuesday. Because of the tremendous number of requests to read the piece from sports fans all across the Rivals network, we made that interview general content.
Immediately after the interview was published, we started to receive emails, phone calls and message board posts about Marcus' situation from sports fans all across the Rivals network. Many obvious Vandy-related questions remain unanswered, and likely will remain so for obvious reasons. Though Dixon did sign an NCAA National Letter of Intent to attend Vanderbilt, he never signed a Vanderbilt scholarship— so, technically, Marcus never was a Vanderbilt student athlete. Therefore, the VU coaches and administrators cannot talk about Marcus or the case on or off the record, as it would (at least) be a violation of NCAA rules.
As a point of record, we have contacted Vanderbilt University, and they have elected to not make any comment on the case. At that time, none of VU administrators we spoke with had seen the Real Sports story.
Marcus Dixon was, according to Rivals.com, the most highly rated recruit in VU's 2003 class. According to his parents, the 6-6 240-pound Dixon had been offered a scholarship from almost every SEC program, but chose to attend Vanderbilt because "he wanted to get an education." In fact, Marcus committed very early to Coach Bobby Johnson's first full recruiting class — a fact that Johson stated many times had a very positive impact on their ability to convince other top recruits to sign with Vanderbilt.
The news of Dixon's arrest for rape, statutory rape, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and sexual battery seemed to take those who knew him by surprise. It seemed totally out of character for this near-4.0 student, who scored greater than 1,200 on his SAT and planned to major in education at Vandy. In the end, the jury found no basis for any of the "forcible crimes" charges, and found him not guilty on all of them. They also concluded that, as was Dixon's claim all along, the sex was completely consensual.
However, John McClellan, the Floyd County District Attorney on the case, also brought the charge of Child Molestation against Dixon. This charge was proven through a technicality, as Dixon was two years and seven months older than the girl, and Dixon had just turned 18. Even though the sex was consensual, under Georgia's relatively new Child Protection laws, this conviction carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence without parole. According to Gumbel via the law firm representing Dixon's appeal, and not disputed by McClellan, this is the first time in Georgia's history that a high school teen was prosecuted for a felony for having consensual sex with a classmate.
The conviction — in legalese, for "statutory rape and aggravated child molestation" — at the time received little attention outside of the local media. However, an attorney in Atlanta — David Balser, of McKenna Long and Aldridge — just happened to read a small newspaper report in the Rome News-Tribune on the decision, and it piqued his interest. The deeper Balser dug, the more troubled he became with the case.
Last fall, Balser gathered his facts and called a meeting of a few friends at his firm. When he showed them what he believed had happened — that Dixon had committed a crime that in all previous cases had never resulted in any jail time, and it appeared was prosecuted in large part because Dixon was black and the girl was white — his firm gave him permission to pursue an appeal on a pro bono basis to the Georgia Supreme Court.
(Balser, it should be noted, specializes in complex business litigation at McKenna Long & Aldridge. He had no experience in civil rights appeals. In fact, none of ML&A's 400+ attorneys — whose clients serve industries as aerospace, biotech, health care and real estate — have made a career out of civil law.)
The crux of Balser's case lies in what appears to be a conflict between two Georgia laws. The first (O.C.G.A. 16-6-3) states that consensual sex between two teenagers of less than three years' age difference is a misdemeanor, not normally punishable by any jail sentence. The second (O.C.G.A. 16-6-4) states that an age difference of two or more years, when one of the two is 18 or older, necessarilly constitutes a felony child molestation conviction.
If upheld, the court's decision in the Dixon case would make it possible for any 18-year-old high school student to serve a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for having consensual sex with a classmate who is more than two years younger than him/her.
Balser's appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court — which has been emailed in its entirety to VandySports.com — is based on two primary principles; (1) that the sentence represents cruel and unusual punishment as defined by the U.S. Constitution, and (2) that the sentence is not consistent with the intent of the law Marcus was accused of breaking. The state legislature's objective in passing laws relating to sex involving children, Marcus's lawyers say, was to protect them from adult sexual predators. The legislature thus deemed aggravated child molestation is one of the "seven deadly sins" requiring the 10-year sentence.
In other words, Balser contends the punishment did not fit the crime.
As such, it is at least likely that had the DA not prosecuted Dixon under this statute, he would most likely be attending Vanderbilt today. In fact, when you consider the lack of depth VU has on the defensive line —a reality that has pressed freshman tight end Jonathan Loyte, among others, into DE duty — Dixon would almost certainly be playing a major role on the Vandy defense this season.
Under Georgia law, the Supreme Court is required to hear all appeals that concern constitional conflicts. They will hear the case in January, 2004, and issue their decision in March.
Jackson-Spalding, the public relations firm supporting David Balser's pro bono activities on this case, has promised VandySports.com that, if desired, we would get the opportunity to interview both Mr. Balser and Marcus' parents.
We at VandySports.com want to make it clear that our interest in this story is wholly related to the fact that Dixon was at one time a top VU football recruit, seemed at the time to be a model Vandy student athlete prospect, and in theory could still end up at Vanderbilt. In addition, based on Mr. Gumbel's interview with VandySports.com, it appears Dixon continues to think highly of Vanderbilt as a football program and a university. Though we cannot know the outcome of this situation either way, it appears possible at this point that, if aquitted, Dixon could still end up attending Vanderbilt.
There now seems little doubt that this story is destined for enormous media attention, both locally and nationally. Several national television and newspaper services are now preparing major stories of their own. We recognize the controversial questions this story may pose, and only strive to offer all the facts so that you and others can draw your own conclusions.
All VandySports.com fans are encouraged to research this case on their own. We strongly encourage each of you to watch the Real Sports episode, which will continue to air several times a day until November 25 via HBO and HBO2.
As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions about this and any other VU-related issue here on our message boards. We will do our best to answer any questions you may have as this case moves forward, and will continue to follow this story on your behalf as it evolves.