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Opinion

Why Philly's New District Attorney Matters to People With HIV

November 15, 2017

Ronda B. Goldfein, Esq.

Ronda B. Goldfein, Esq. (Courtesy of Ronda Goldfein)

On election night, Nov. 7, the opening notes of The Chambers Brothers' classic rock song, "Time Has Come Today," played as Larry Krasner took the stage at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia. The career civil rights lawyer had just been elected Philadelphia's district attorney.

Krasner has sued the city of Philadelphia and the city's police department more than 75 times. He has represented many activists, most recently Black Lives Matter and Occupy Philly. He has also defended Julie Graham, a young nurse from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, charged in 2013 with two felonies and two misdemeanors for not telling her former partner that she was living with HIV. Her partner did not contract HIV from Julie, nor could he because her viral load was undetectable. The scientific evidence is clear that when a person's viral load is suppressed to the point of undetectability, HIV is not transmittable.

Julie was facing 30 years in jail. Larry was new to the issue of HIV criminalization, but not to the ideals of HIV activists whom he had represented for years. He quickly realized that Julie's possible punishment was out of proportion to the negligible risk of harm she posed to her former partner.

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Larry worked diligently to get three of Julie's four charges dismissed. At Larry's suggestion, my law firm contacted the Lebanon County District Attorney to provide more education on HIV transmission risk. Finally, the remaining charge of reckless endangerment was dropped in exchange for Julie's participation in a special rehabilitation program for first-time offenders.

Larry's election as district attorney represents significant change. Most DAs usually take political stances that increase the power of police and promote longer prison and jail sentences. Instead, Larry campaigned on hot-button law-enforcement issues: no death penalty, no cash bail, no civil asset forfeiture. Moreover, through his representation of Julie, he has shown that he believes the scientific evidence on HIV risk and appreciates the complexities of HIV disclosure. Most importantly, he's shown a commitment to the idea that the criminal justice system is not the forum for a pubic health matter.


Related: Discrimination Against People With HIV Is Illegal. Here's What to Do if It Happens to You.


We are optimistic that he will help send the message that HIV criminalization only perpetuates the stigma fueling the epidemic. Tremendous progress has been made in preventing HIV transmission and successfully treating the virus. Philadelphia now has a prosecutor with the commitment to get out of the way of public health.

Time has come today.

Ronda Goldfein is executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit public-interest law firm founded in 1988 that provides free legal services to people living with HIV and AIDS in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.


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