LAWRENCEVILLE -- No longer the sole province of killers and serial bank robbers, a life sentence in Georgia prisons is hardly unprecedented for convicted child molesters, following a law change several years ago.
Antoine Johnson, a former Dacula church group leader, joined a handful of Gwinnett convicts this week whose fates have recently been sealed by the reformed legislation. Some say indefinite imprisonment is the only recourse.
Prosecutors drew comparisons between Johnson's case and that of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who faces centuries behind bars after being convicted on Friday of molesting at least 10 young men for more than a decade.
Gwinnett Assistant District Attorney Nigel Lush, who prosecuted Johnson's case, said both men would fit the mold of a true pedophile or "preferential child molester" -- that is, someone who pursues multiple children with a less-than-discerning appetite.
"People often interchange the words 'child molester' and 'pedophile' as if there is no distinction, but I think most psychological experts would tell you most child molesters aren't pedophiles," Lush said. "Most are what are called situational molesters. It's a particular child they're going after."
Johnson was indicted on 19 counts, among them three counts of aggravated child molestation. A law change three years ago that raised the stakes on sex offenses made aggravated child molestation -- characterized by sodomy with a child or injuries to them -- one of the "seven deadly sins" that can bring life sentences. Other crimes include murder, rape, armed robbery and kidnapping.
For sex crime offenders, a life sentence is intended not to send a message but to indefinitely protect society from those who cannot be helped, said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter.
Georgia Department of Corrections statistics show that 75 people were serving life sentences between January 2007 and 2011 for aggravated child molestation. Thirteen of those sentences had no possibility of parole.
In Johnson's case, "it's not like he made a bad choice -- it's ingrained in him," Porter said. "No matter how long he's in prison, when he gets out, he'll attempt to re-offend."
Johnson's attorney, Stacy Levy, said her client will be eligible for parole in 30 years, based on current GDOC guidelines. He plans to appeal the ruling, she said.
"I think the judge was very thoughtful. I respect his decision," Levy said. "(Although) it's not what I wanted."
Johnson, 29, was convicted Wednesday of posing as a 14-year-old girl on MySpace to lure and groom underage boys. He arraigned rendezvouses and molested two boys (ages 13 and 14) and attempted to have sex with a third in 2008.
Before sentencing, Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Timothy Hamil called the scheme "absolutely diabolical." That Johnson never admitted to physically abusing the two friends, and showed no remorse, was unforgivable in Hamil's eyes, the judge said from the bench.
In his plight, Johnson has company. In his ruling, Hamil's not alone.
• After an October jury trial, Superior Court Judge Warren Davis sentenced Carlos Humberto Castillo-Rodriguez to life for raping a 4-year-old girl.
• In 2010, Alejandro Castaneda confessed to molesting a 13-year-old relative on several occasions in his home and was sentenced by Judge Debra Turner to life plus 40 years.
Recently, judges in other states have meted out similarly long terms.
• Two months ago in Texas, ex-con Carlos Mireles Jr. was sentenced to life after a jury convicted him of three counts of raping a 5-year-old.
• And in January, Arthur Leon Vitasek -- described by authorities as one of Arizona's most egregious serial child molesters -- was ordered to life in prison after jurors convicted him of sexually abusing eight boys in Phoenix. A prosecutor in that case told the Associated Press that jurors were swayed by the emotional testimony of young victims.
Locally, Johnson faced a maximum of 310 years in prison and turned down a plea deal of 20 years. If that sounds lenient, Lush said plea deals are common in sex abuse cases to spare victims the emotional rigors of testifying.
The Johnson case was exceptional in terms of the amount of evidence -- a taped confession, stacks of printed emails, three teens with similar stories -- stacked against him.
"Most of the time, child molestation cases end up as swearing contests between the child and the accused, with no other evidence," Lush said. "(They're) very difficult to win at trial."
For sex crime defendants, the benefits of pleading guilty are twofold: It can bring a substantially shorter sentence while shielding judges and juries from the mortifying details of the case.
On the stand, Johnson said he exercised his option for a bench trial to have the case heard only by a judge, effectively sparing the teens from testifying before a jury pool of strangers.
Levy, his attorney, hoped the judge might opt for a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, in that her client pleaded guilty to a majority of his charges. That approach backfired.
"Here, (the judge) got every nuance of the case" and was clearly disturbed, Levy said. "Whatever Antoine did, his family lost a son, and I think that's sad."