In early October 2013, HIV-positive Lindenwood University wrestler Michael Johnson (nickname “Tiger Mandingo”) was arrested and charged with one felony count of “recklessly infecting another with HIV” and four felony counts of “attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV.”
Missouri law requires HIV-positive people to disclose their HIV-status to sexual partners even if they’re undetectable or use condoms. Five men accused Johnson of not having done so, and the law allowed them to press charges even though they consented to condomless anal sex and didn’t inquire about his HIV status. Only one of them contracted the virus afterwards.
When one of Johnson’s previous sexual partners tested positive, the state eventually brought a case against him, found him guilty of all charges and, in 2015, sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
That conviction was just overturned by the the Missouri Appeals Court because of prosecutorial misconduct. The Court says that prosecutors illegally withheld tapes of Johnson’s recorded prison phone conversations from his defense attorneys.
Johnson will have a new trial and the Sero Project, an organization which opposes HIV-criminalization laws, has pledged to give Johnson financial support for a strong defense. In the first trial, Johnson only had a court-appointed public defender.
No matter the outcome of Johnson’s new trial, the state’s HIV-criminalization laws will remain in place. As I wrote in the past:
HIV-criminalization laws not only perpetuate anti-HIV animus by suggesting the idea that HIV-positive people are disease-spreading pariahs worthy of extra societal punishment, but they also provide a good reason NOT to get tested. After all, if neither you nor anyone else knows your HIV-status, how can anyone accuse you of knowingly trying to spread it?
HIV criminalization laws get disproportionately used against men of color andDr. Fred Rottnek, the Medical Director of Corrections Medicine for St. Louis County Department of Health, has said, “HIV criminalization does not produce positive health outcomes for individuals or populations.”
Trevor Hoppe, assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY and author of the forthcoming book, Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness, told Hornet:
“Unfortunately, Michael Johnson’s case is but one of many criminal cases under Missouri’s HIV exposure law that have resulted in extreme and glaringly unjust prison sentences. According to my research, Missouri courts sentence defendants to some of the longest prison terms in the country – an average of 128 months. The ruling today is encouraging news for Missouri defendants and for HIV advocates across the nation.”
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