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Michael Johnson, HIV Disclosure, and the Coercive Nature of Plea Bargains

November 28, 2017

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On Sept. 21, 2017, Michael Johnson, a former college wrestler, entered a no-contest plea in the St. Charles Circuit Court in Missouri. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which includes time served for the four years he has already spent behind bars.

As readers might remember, Johnson was arrested in 2013 and charged with non-disclosure of his HIV status to six sexual partners. Johnson said that he had disclosed; the prosecution argued that he hadn't and that one of Johnson's partners later tested positive for HIV.

In a trial rife with racism and homophobia, the young black gay college student was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He appealed and, in April 2017, the state supreme court upheld his right to a new trial.

However, Missouri's laws around HIV non-disclosure are among the harsher in the country. Under the state's statute, originally passed in 1988 and made harsher in 1997 and 2002, HIV non-disclosure before sex is a felony. So is HIV transmission. It doesn't matter whether a condom was used; what matters is whether defendants can prove that they told their partner before having sex.

If he had taken his chances at a new trial, Johnson risked a 100-year prison sentence if another jury of twelve found him guilty.

Johnson's experience, complete with the threat of a century in prison, might seem shocking, but the reality is that plea bargains are extremely common.


Plea Bargains: An Everyday Occurrence

Nearly all felony convictions -- 94% at the state level and 97% at the federal level -- are the result of plea bargains.

This has even been acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court, coincidentally in a case that originated in Missouri. In August 2007, college student Galin Frye was arrested and charged with driving with a revoked license. Because he had been convicted of the same offense three times before, the state of Missouri charged him with a class D felony, which carried a maximum sentence of four years. Three months later, the prosecutor sent Frye's attorney a letter offering two plea bargains. If Frye pled guilty to the felony charge, the prosecutor would recommend that Frye serve only 10 days of a three-year sentence. This still meant that Frye would be saddled with a felony record (and have to spend 10 days in jail). The second offer reduced the charge to a misdemeanor, which carried a maximum sentence of one year behind bars; the prosecutor would recommend that Frye serve only 90 days. These offers, the letter continued, would expire on Dec. 28, one week before Frye's Jan. 4 court hearing.

But Frye's attorney didn't bother to tell his client about the letter or the plea offers. Two days after the offer had expired, on Dec. 30, 2007, Frye was again arrested for driving with a revoked license. Frye pled guilty and, though the prosecutor requested 10 days in jail, the judge sentenced Frye to three years in prison. It was only after he had been sentenced that Frye learned about these plea offers. He filed for post-conviction relief, arguing that, had his attorney told him about the letter, he would have accepted the misdemeanor plea bargain.

His case made it to the Supreme Court, which, in 2012, sided with him. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged the overwhelming significance of the plea bargain: "'[H]orse trading [between prosecutor and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.'" But, by the time the decision was issued, Frye had already served his sentence.

When he was arrested in 2013, a year after the Missouri v. Frye decision, Michael Johnson had no prior criminal record. However, he was a black gay man being tried in St. Charles, a county that is 90% white and among the country's top 100 conservative counties. During his summation, the prosecutor freely admitted to intentionally including prospective jurors who considered gay sex a sin. The jury deliberated for just over two hours before convicting Johnson of five of the six counts and recommended 30 years in prison.

"Pleas Are the Norm and Trials Are Not"

Even those facing charges for the first time have a high incentive to accept a plea rather than wait (and wait and wait) for their constitutional day in court.

Mariame Kaba is the director and founder of Project NIA, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that works toward ending youth criminalization and incarceration. She told that in her years working with criminalized youth, less than a quarter of those facing criminal charges have ever taken their case to trial. "Pleas are the norm," she said, "Trials are not." The threat hanging over each defendant's head is that, if he or she exercises the constitutional right to a trial and loses, the prosecutor will demand the highest possible penalty. If people plea bargain, they can receive a more lenient sentence.

In 2009, Robert Suttle pled guilty to HIV non-disclosure. In Louisiana, where Suttle had been arrested and was facing trial, intentional exposure to HIV carries a possible ten-year prison sentence. When his attorney told him that he could plead guilty and instead serve two years of probation, he decided to do just that. "They already have evidence that you are HIV positive," he explained to "You know your status, which shouldn't be a crime, but the burden is on you to prove that you did disclose." Facing the chance that a guilty verdict would mean a decade in prison, Suttle opted for what he felt was the lesser punishment.

Like many defendants, Suttle was never in the room when his attorney and the prosecutor hashed out a possible plea bargain. In fact, he told The Body, he had already started working in another state by the time his attorney and the prosecutor began negotiations.. It was only after pleading guilty that he learned that he would not only spend two years on probation, but also six months behind bars and 15 years on the sex offender registry. "I pled to something not fully understanding the implications," he reflected.

But it's not simply the threatened sentence that pushes many towards plea bargains. Kaba noted that many youth, particularly those who are low-income youth of color, are assigned bail amounts that their families cannot afford, which results in them spending lengthy amounts of time in jail as they await their day in court. "And," Kaba added, "Jail is hellish." In addition, more often than not, they're assigned public defenders who are overloaded with other cases and unable to provide any shadow of time-intensive, let alone zealous, representation.

At the same time, the hammer of the criminal justice system doesn't fall equally on everyone. "Race is involved in the criminal punishment system at every level," Kaba reminded Black people are up to ten times more likely to be arrested than people of other ethnicities. Black people are also 10% more likely than whites to be either remanded to jail before trial or unable to afford bail; they are also more likely to be offered pleas involving incarceration rather than probation.

HIV criminalization follows that same pattern. The Williams Institute found that, in California, white men were significantly more likely to be released without charge (61% of HIV-specific criminalization cases). But black men, while making up 14% of people living with HIV in California, made up nearly one-fifth (19%) of those criminalized because of their HIV status. The disproportion for black women was even higher: Though they are only 4% of the state's population living with HIV, they make up 21% of those who have had contact with the criminal justice system because of their status.

As reported previously, HIV criminalization has long been used as a prosecutorial threat, even if HIV-specific charges are never filed in court. In New Orleans, Women With a Vision organizes with low-income African-American women, many of whom are living with HIV. Policy director Nia Weeks, who previously worked as a public defender, noted that the city's district attorney often threatens to upcharge (or increase criminal charges) or to use the state's habitual offender laws to coerce people to plead guilty.

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