In early October 2013, Michael Johnson (also known as “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.” In 2015, the Michael Johnson sentence was handed down: 30 years.
The problems with the Michael Johnson sentence
Missouri law requires HIV-positive people to disclose their status — even if they’re undetectable. In Johnson’s case, five men accused him of not disclosing. It should be mentioned, however, that the five men all consented to condomless anal sex with Johnson, failing to inquire about his HIV status. One man subsequently contracted the virus.
In December 2016, the Missouri Appeals Court overturned the conviction on prosecutorial misconduct. The court said prosecutors illegally withheld evidence from Johnson’s defense attorneys.
Unfortunately, the Appeals Court didn’t consider Johnson’s second argument — that the sentence was unconstitutional — and Johnson’s case went to re-trial.
After several months of negotiation between Johnson’s lawyers and the prosecution, a plea bargain was reached. The deal: Johnson wouldn’t have to admit guilt. In exchange, he will serve 10 years in prison.
Though that sounds like an awful deal — and it is — Johnson’s other option was to go to trial and face a potential 96-year prison sentence. He could get out on parole in 18 months, and after his release will not have to register as a sex offender.
The Michael Johnson sentence shows the failings of HIV criminalization laws
HIV criminalization laws are disproportionately used against men of color. Dr. Fred Rottnek, Medical Director of Corrections Medicine for the St. Louis County Department of Health, has said, “HIV criminalization does not produce positive health outcomes for individuals or populations.”
In a previous interview, Trevor Hoppe, author of the upcoming 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.”
HIV criminalization laws discourage people from being tested, as the laws specifically target HIV-positive people who are aware of their status. Thus, if you don’t know your status, you can’t be held liable under the statute.
Johnson’s sentence is a perfect illustration of why these homophobic, HIV-phobic and racist laws should be repealed.