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Sanjay Johnson Faces Prison Sentence in Arkansas HIV Crime Trial

September 5, 2018

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"I Was Basically Dying"

Despite the plethora of scientific knowledge on the issue, the notion that there remains a miniscule possibility of someone who is undetectable passing the disease on to others is considered significant enough for Johnson's accuser to pursue charges against Johnson.

"Here's the thing with being undetectable: It lowers the chance to transmit the disease; it doesn't just put it at zero," Doe said. "I even talked to my doctor about it, and they're like, it's not a definite that you're not going to transmit it to someone else."

Whereas Johnson does not remember the details of any conversation they had prior to their hook-up, Doe said he specifically asked Johnson whether he had any sexually transmitted diseases before they had sex.

"I asked him, 'Hey, do you have anything?' -- the usual question that you would ask somebody -- or if he had a condom," Doe said. "What Sanjay told me is that he didn't use condoms. I didn't really think too much that it was a possibility that he had something, but kind of taking his word for it, which probably was not the best thing to do."


A month after his encounter with Johnson, Doe was back at school when he began to get ill. "A lot of my friends noticed I was losing a lot of weight," Doe said. "I started having night sweats; I started having joint pain in my right knee; I wasn't eating; I would lose my breath quick, and my heart would start pounding."

At the urging of his parents, Doe went to his school's health clinic and learned he was HIV positive. "It was alarming since I never knew too much about HIV, and the first thought was, 'I am going to die soon,'" he said. "What was the point of living anymore since I had HIV? What are people going to think about me now that I have this? Of course, I would have to tell people in my future relationships that I have this disease, and what if I'm not accepted or what if I'm going to be alone?"

Doe was forced to medically withdraw from school, struggled with depression, and believes he was weeks away from death before getting on treatment.

"My CD4 was so low that they actually considered me to have AIDS until my viral load went down and my CD4 went up," Doe said.

While not commenting on the specifics of this case, Smith with the Arkansas Department of Public Health told TheBody in an emailed statement, "It would be very unusual for someone to progress to AIDS after just one month of HIV infection." He added: "Sometimes the CD4 count will dip down shortly after infection and then come back up. If a CD4 count was done during that dip, it might be less than 200 and meet the case definition for AIDS."

This, together with the fact that Johnson was undetectable just a week before their encounter, gives Johnson's defense lawyer reason to question whether Johnson could have possibly been the person from whom Doe contracted HIV.

Doe believes he endured unnecessary suffering because someone did not disclose his HIV-positive status. "It was really, really bad, and I was basically dying," Doe said. "I had mono on top of a [urinary tract infection], and it was awful. If you're not given a choice or a chance, or at least are told, 'Hey, I have X, Y, and Z, are you still interested?' or 'This is what we need to do to so you can protect yourself.' If you're just going to give everybody HIV, people are going to die and people are going to get sick. Not a lot of people show symptoms as fast as I did."

Once Doe started medication and his health recovered, he reinstalled Jack'd and received a message from Johnson. Doe said he continued to accept Johnson's initial denial of having HIV, so it didn't occur to him that Johnson could have been the person who infected him.

"I rarely had unprotected sex with people, and I would ask them," said Doe, who added that he had sex without a condom with only one person other than Johnson. "When I found out I had HIV, I was told that I needed to go to the health department and disclose to them who I had sex with, or who I had unprotected sex with. So I was like, it's one of these two people, which one is it? But Sanjay was, he was the one where he came back, and we had contact."

When asked in a deposition for the name of the second individual that he had condomless sex with, Doe answered: "I have no idea. It was the same situation off of Jack'd. Before I even knew who Sanjay was [by reconnecting with him], I didn't even really know his name or anything."

About a month into their friendship, Doe said he again asked Johnson whether he was HIV positive, and at that time, Johnson admitted he was and had been undetectable during their sexual encounter.

"He asked me if I was mad, and I told him, no; I just told him that I was hurt," Doe said. "If you knew that you had something, it would have helped a lot if you just told me. You didn't have to lie to me. I'm not the type of person that would judge somebody based off their status; I would just make sure there was precaution taken. So, I didn't really get my chance. It's like my choice was taken from me."

A few days after their conversation, Doe visited a Little Rock police department to file a complaint against Johnson, and a few days later, detectives interviewed Doe.

"Since he told me he doesn't usually use a condom, and he failed to disclose to me, I was just like, I don't want this to happen to somebody else," Doe said. "The only reason I went to the police [was] not to put Sanjay in jail or to make sure that, 'You need to pay for what you did to me.' No. I just don't want him to do it to someone else."

Doe wasn't aware of the results of his conversations with police "until I was at work one day and people were talking about it, and I didn't know who they were talking about until I saw [Johnson's] picture."

"There Has to Be Some Other Option"

Doe believes Johnson's lack of disclosure denied him the choice of protecting himself, but Johnson and many advocates believe the HIV disclosure law makes HIV-positive individuals criminally liable for other people's behavior.

"I believe the responsibility shouldn't be put all on me as the person who is positive," Johnson said. "For one, I'm not in control of another person's body; I'm not in charge of you or make you lay down with me. Anyone has the right to decline. Whether you're positive or not, man or woman, gay or straight or transgender, white or black, you have the right to ask to protect yourself."

In addition to seeking to exonerate Johnson, Maples said she hopes to abolish the state's HIV disclosure law, which would likely require a U.S. Supreme Court ruling given the conservative makeup of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

"The statute itself is unconstitutional," Maples said. "It's the only law in Arkansas that punishes someone for having a medical condition. The language is understandable for the time that the statute was enacted, but that's no longer the status, and the laws have not kept up with medical science, and it desperately needs to be changed."

Doe is opposed to eliminating HIV disclosure laws, but he believes they should be amended to include nuanced "criteria" related to intent and evidence.

"If they're going to have laws that put people in jail for not disclosing, there should be some type of criteria for that," Doe said. "I think it should be based off more than just somebody's word; there has to be factual evidence to put somebody in jail for transmitting the disease."

When discussing what justice would look like at the Oct. 4 trial, Doe's voice was weighted with uncertainty.

"Even with the prosecuting attorney, they would ask me a bunch of questions, and I would just tell them that I don't hate Sanjay; I don't dislike him; I just wish he would have gave me my choice," Doe said. "A lot of the time, whenever somebody is exposed to HIV, it's seen as the person that is transmitting is trying to be spiteful. Since I had that friendship with Sanjay, and I actually got to know him, I don't believe that he is a spiteful person. Of course, the [prosecutors] are going to have what they believe is right. Honestly, I would be satisfied if there were a way just to make sure this didn't happen to somebody else. I'm not the type of person that is spiteful or that wants to see somebody's life completely ruined."

While he didn't express regret about contacting police, Doe has detached himself from the litigation beyond being subpoenaed as a witness for the prosecution, and it's clear he feels the situation is out of his hands.

"The case is not my case," Doe said. "It is, you know, the state against him -- it's not me." He added: "Whenever somebody is going to court, and it's the state against him, my opinion as far as everything goes doesn't matter too much. There has to be something else than giving him 30 years. There has to be some other option. I understand that he made a mistake as far as not disclosing and not doing what he's supposed to do, but I do believe there should be another option."

Born in the mid-'90s, Johnson and Doe are both part of the first generation of gay men to come of age after the advent of effective medications for HIV/AIDS, which transformed the disease from a death sentence that created a sense of urgency to a chronic illness that most of society no longer discusses. The type of encounter they had takes place hundreds of times per day on Jack'd and other hook-up apps, and Mabin worries that many of the Little Rock residents he serves are oblivious to how a one-night stand could lead to more than a quarter century in prison.

"After this happened to Sanjay, I went on a heightened [outreach effort], where I did workshops with HIV providers in the area," Mabin said. "After each workshop that I did, I determined that most of the participants in those classes -- who are living with HIV -- had no clue about this law, and did not know how it could impact them, and that alarmed me."

Ryan Lee is a writer based in Atlanta and a columnist for the Georgia Voice newspaper, which focuses on LGBT issues in the South.

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This article was provided by TheBody.


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