Very few high school athletes, even good ones, will star in college. Most simply lack the talent. Some suffer injuries and are never the same. Among this majority, Marcus Dixon is a minority; he didn’t make it to collegeVanderbilt, in this casebecause he went to prison instead. And it’s fair to say he’s in prison because he’s a minority.
If you were paying attention to local headlines last spring, you might remember Dixon’s name. But you probably don’t know much of the story of the young high school star from Rome, Ga., who in many ways epitomizes both the promise of a changing South and the lingering curse of an unreconstructed one.
Dixon, a 6-6, 265-pound National Honor Society student who scored 1,200 on his SAT, was widely recruited by elite college programs. He accepted a scholarship from Vanderbilt, where the quality of the academics appealed to him. Before he ever matriculated, however, Dixon was arrested and charged with raping a 15-year-old classmate. Vandy withdrew its scholarship offer. Dixon was convicted and is serving 15 years in the Georgia State Penitentiary.
Here in Nashville, this bare outline was about all most folks saw, and Dixon’s name is largely forgotten. But a couple of weeks ago the story came up again, this time with a nationwide airing, thanks to HBO’s program, Real Sports.
The show segment made startlingly clear what you probably didn’t read in the papers: Dixon is black; his “victim” is white. I use quotation marks because the jury that was forced to convict Dixon didn’t see the girl as a victim. I use the word “forced” because the prosecutor applied Georgia’s law in a way that defines teen sex as a felony.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Dixon had a dalliance with a white girl. He was adopted and raised, after all, by a white family who, by all accounts, adored him. He existed simultaneously in two worlds, in a town that itself was marked by dichotomy: A town where the Klan still marches, yet where, as in most Southern cities, interracial relationships are becoming more common.
The sexual liaison between Dixon and the girl took place after school one day, in a portable classroom. Two days later, the girl claimed she was raped. Dixon maintained the encounter was consensual.
At trial, the jury never heard from several of the girl’s friends, who told the HBO interviewers that she had initially bragged to them about the encounter. Only later did she allege rape.
Bruises on the girl’s arma result of the attack, she claimedhad been there before, the friends said. Why, one of them asked her, did she change her story? Her answer was chilling, yet all too familiar. Her father, a virulent racist, would kill both her and Dixon if he learned that their encounter was anything but rape. Even in recounting this story to a TV camera, the friend was so fearful that his face was obscured and his voice electronically altered.
As it turned out, any evidence the friends might have given was unnecessary. It took the jurors all of 20 minutes to conclude that no sexual attack had taken place. They acquitted Dixon of the charges of rape and false imprisonment. But that didn’t close the case.
Dixon also had been charged with violating a relatively new child molestation law that prescribed harsh penalties for sex with someone under 16 years old. Since there was no dispute that intercourse had taken place, the jury and judge had no choice but to convict Dixon on that count.
Later, the jurors said they hadn’t understood how the law’s penalties would apply; the majority did not believe that Dixon should serve 15 years in prison. The Georgia legislator who sponsored the original bill said that the law had been misapplied in Dixon’s case. It was never intended, he maintained, to be used in cases of consensual sex among teenagers.
Which brings us to the prosecutor. In Rome, that would be a jowly white man with several chins and an unctuous, untrustworthy smile. The guy looks like he could come straight from central casting when the director needs someone to play a Klan-leading Baptist deacon.
Despite the jury’s finding and the evidence presented by Real Sports, the prosecutor smiled sweetly and maintained that his case for a forcible attack was strong. The “underage” charge, he said, was included merely to make a good case even better.
Dixon’s adoptive parents continue to stand by him, though they’re enduring the usual vandalism, graffiti and racist threats. Meanwhile, Marcus Dixon will spend the next several years in a Georgia prison instead of a Vanderbilt dormitory. His hopes of playing college football are over.
Maybe he has only himself to blame for dallying with a white girl in a town where his own adoptive grandmother moved out of the family’s house to demonstrate her disapproval of a cross-racial adoption. Maybe Dixon, tragically, is just another pampered athlete who believed his status gave him some sort of immunity.
But I can’t help but ask the biggest and most obvious questions: Would this statute have been invoked in a case of consensual sex involving two white teenagers? Or two black ones? And given the he-said-she-saidness of the evidence, would a rape charge have been brought against a white defendant? Those questions went unasked by Bryant Gumbel, the HBO interviewer. Perhaps it’s because the answer was already clear.
Dixon’s attorneys have filed an appeal on the child molestation charge, and the Georgia Supreme Court will hear it in January. Meanwhile, I keep thinking of a lyric by the British songwriter Billy Bragg, who played the Belcourt a couple of weeks ago. The song involves a plea of innocence by a man who tells the judge his case involves a gross injustice. “This ain’t a court of justice, son,” the sneering judge replies. “This is a court of law.”
I also keep thinking about the power we entrust to prosecutors. Here in Nashville, we have our own history with overzealous (to use the most charitable term) assistant district attorneys, one of whom has twice been formally flagged for his conduct. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the prosecutors from the perpetrators.
And I can’t help but think about a young man in prison for an act that had never before in Georgia been prosecuted as a crime. In Marcus Dixon’s case, a prosecutor found a new way to punish an old taboo. All the efforts of the civil rights community notwithstanding, it won’t be the last case until we white folkswhite voters, white churches, white businesspeople and white political leadersbecome sick enough and outraged enough to make it stop.
How It Looks from the La-Z-Boy
Titans 27, Colts 24
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Patriots 24, Dolphins 21
Georgia 20, LSU 16