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Court Rules Michael Johnson HIV Criminalization Conviction Was 'Trial-by-Ambush'

December 20, 2016


In a stunning reversal, the Missouri Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for former college wrestler Michael Johnson after finding the state deliberately sabotaged his defense against HIV criminalization charges by withholding two years worth of phone recordings from the jail where he was housed.

Johnson's attorneys had argued on appeal that the African-American HIV-positive young man had been denied the opportunity to build a defense against incriminating statements found in those recordings.

The state, despite a proper request for discovery, failed to produce those recordings until, effectively, the morning of Johnson's first trial. The court then allowed excerpts of those recordings -- of Johnson speaking to numerous people from jail in St. Louis County, Missouri -- to be used to challenge his testimony.

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Court rules require evidence sought under a discovery request to be turned over promptly. Lawyers for the state admitted the recordings were withheld from discovery disclosure to prevent Johnson's legal team from advising him not to talk about the case on the phone.

"We hold, therefore, the state's blatant discovery violation is inexcusable, should not be repeated … and supports a finding of fundamental unfairness in this case," Presiding Judge James Dowd wrote in the opinion released Tuesday. Judges Gary Gaertner Jr. and Lisa Page concurred with Dowd's written ruling.

Johnson was convicted of five felony charges in 2015 for allegedly failing to disclose his HIV status to sexual partners. He was sentenced to over 60 years in prison on all charges; however, the judge allowed some of that sentence to be served concurrently, reducing the time he would spend in prison to 30 years.

Todd A. Heywood is a freelance writer based in Lansing, Michigan. He specializes in writing about HIV policy issues in the U.S. Find him on Facebook and @ToddHeywood on Twitter.


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