Shades of Gray

updated 01/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Seven pairs of sneakers line up neatly against his dresser; his football helmet hangs on the doorknob, right where he left it. Awards and team photos are everywhere, as they might be in any jock's room. The only thing missing is the jock, Marcus Dixon. "When I see his empty room," says Casey Jones, 18, the son of Dixon's legal guardians, "it's like somebody died."

For nearly a year now, Dixon, 19, has lived among crooks and killers in a prison in Forsyth, Ga., and how he got there is the subject of a racial imbroglio that has roiled the sleepy community he once called home. A star athlete and an A student at Pepperell High School in Lindale, Ga., the then-18-year-old Dixon was arrested last Feb. 12—one week after getting a full football scholarship to Vanderbilt—on charges of raping a 15-year-old white classmate. A jury acquitted Dixon of rape, concluding that the sex was consensual. But since his underage partner appeared to have suffered some injuries during the incident they found him guilty of aggravated child molestation. What the jurors didn't know was that the charge carries an automatic minimum sentence of 10 years; five jurors later said they might have voted differently had they known. "We thought he would be going home that day," says Robert Williamson, one of three black jurors (the other nine were white). Dixon's supporters insist he is the victim of a race-based prosecution. "This was a judicial lynching," says Georgia State Rep. Tyrone Brooks. "He's an African-American male in a small town who had a relationship with a white girl. If Marcus Dixon were white, he would not have been arrested or charged."

The decision—which was appealed and will be revisited by Georgia's supreme court Jan. 21—has drawn the national media to this predominantly white county of 90,000. "Most people here believe blacks should stay with blacks and whites should stay with whites," says Peri Jones, 45, a teacher who along with husband Ken, 45, the school's maintenance supervisor, became Dixon's legal guardian in 1996. (Dixon barely knows his father; his mother has had drug problems and has been in and out of jail.)

Yet while the 6'6", 265-lb. Dixon is "gentle, not a thug by any stretch," says his high school athletic director Lynn Hunnicutt, he was far from an ideal defendant. He was briefly suspended from high school twice, first for allegedly flashing a female classmate and then for allegedly fondling a girl. David Balser, the Atlanta lawyer who is handling Dixon's appeal pro bono, calls those incidents, which were presented to the jury, "a smoke screen...put in there to smear him." Investigators say they prove Dixon is a sexual predator. Gary Conway, the lead detective on the case, says, "I am 100 percent sure this was rape."

Dixon says he ran into the petite 15-year-old girl outside a classroom after basketball practice last Feb. 10. "She was like, you know, flirting, saying stuff she would do," Dixon says in an interview from prison. "I made the suggestion we go back to my house." But the girl, who cleaned classrooms to earn money for a car, testified that Dixon had earlier asked her which room she'd be cleaning. Dixon claimed she took her clothes off before they had sex on a classroom table; the victim said Dixon pinned her while pushing her pants down with his elbows. "I tried to knee him and stuff, but he kept on," she testified, adding that she was "too scared" to scream. The victim did not tell her parents, who a friend testified the girl had characterized as "really racist." Instead she informed a school counselor; the school then told police.

A nurse found bruises on the girl's arms as well as vaginal tearing, enabling prosecutors to tack on the aggravated child molestation charge. The defense produced witnesses who testified the bruises predated the incident. (Dixon's attorneys contend that vaginal tearing can occur during consensual sex, especially with a virgin, as the victim testified she was.) The jury wrestled with these issues and found Dixon guilty of the lesser charge as a compromise. "The facts just didn't add up," says juror Williamson, citing the victim's testimony about Dixon removing her pants with his elbows. Yet not all the jury members regret the verdict for the same reasons. "I'm just wondering if it really wasn't rape," says juror Charlotte Broadway.

After Dixon's arrest, Vanderbilt rescinded its scholarship. "This hurts the things I was trying to do in life," says Dixon, who is allowed to play some basketball in prison. In their modest three-bedroom home, the Joneses do their best to cope. They cleaned out the $10,000 in their savings account to pay for Marcus's defense and rack up around $500 a month in phone bills talking to him in prison every night.

Now it is up to the Georgia supreme court to make sense of it all—and help heal a splintered community. "Everyone wants to see the right thing done in this case," says Bill Collins, a city commissioner. "It's a tragedy that this young man and this young girl both wound up as victims."

Alex Tresniowski. Kimberly Brown in Lindale

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