Marcus Dixon had it all: a 3.96 grade-point average, a football scholarship to Vanderbilt University and the adoration of many teachers and students at Pepperell High School in Rome, a predominantly white community in the northwest corner of Georgia.
In a place where racial issues still provoke strong emotions, it was no small matter that Dixon, who is black, was being raised by a white family.
These days, the former star of the Pepperell Dragons is serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated child molestation against a fellow student last February. Dixon, then one course shy of graduation, was 18. The girl, who sat in front of him in a class, was three months short of her 16th birthday. During the trial, Dixon's accuser, who is white, said she had been raped. The defense countered that the girl had willingly engaged in intercourse.
The conviction for aggravated child molestation carried a statutory 10-year minimum sentence. Dixon was also convicted of statutory rape, a misdemeanor in Georgia punishable by a maximum of a year in prison.
"I never thought I would get 10 years for having consensual sex with a classmate," Dixon said in a telephone interview Wednesday from prison.
Dixon's lawyers filed an appeal Wednesday to the Georgia Supreme Court in which they presented Dixon's prosecution as faulty and his punishment as unusually harsh. Under state law, they argued, Dixon should have been sentenced under the lesser charge of statutory rape.
On the eve of Wednesday's hearing, nearly 100 people gathered outside the state Supreme Court in Atlanta, holding candles and singing We Shall Overcome. Speaking to the crowd, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, did not mince words.
"If the young lady was black and Marcus Dixon was white, I don't think we would be here," he said, his voice breaking with emotion.
Law enforcement officials in Floyd County reject such accusations, saying they were simply doing their jobs and following state law.
"We believe her story. We believe she was raped," said District Attorney Leigh E. Patterson.
Nearly a year after the two students' encounter at Pepperell High, most details remain in dispute. The girl, who worked as a part-time custodian, said Dixon attacked her as she cleaned an empty classroom trailer. The girl testified that Dixon restrained her, bruising her arms and cutting her lip. The girl, a sophomore, told investigators she had been a virgin.
During the trial, defense lawyers presented three classmates who claimed to have seen the bruises days before the reported attack. The defense described the cut lip as a case of chapped lips. A medical examination confirmed vaginal bruises, which prosecutors said showed Dixon had injured the girl; the defense said such injuries were consistent with someone having sex for the first time.
A jury found Dixon guilty of statutory rape, a misdemeanor, and because of the girl's injuries, the more serious charge of aggravated child molestation. After learning of Dixon's 10-year sentence, five of the jurors said they would not have voted to convict Dixon if they had known he would spend time in prison.
Until last year, Dixon's was a classic tale of triumph over adversity. When the couple who were rearing him, Kenneth and Peri Jones, first met 9-year-old Marcus, his mother was in jail, his father had vanished and the boy was being raised by his grandmother. Jones, the boy's Little League coach, said he was taken with his performance on the field and his zeal for a better life. After spending a summer at the Joneses' home, he moved in for good.
"With his grandmother's blessing, he became family," said Jones, 45, a maintenance manager at Pepperell High. "He never gave us a lick of trouble."