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25-Year Prison Sentence Vanishes for Man Convicted of Not Disclosing HIV Status

By Myles Helfand

September 23, 2009

Twenty-five years in prison and a lifetime of parole. That's the sentence that was initially handed down to Nick Rhoades, a 34-year-old, HIV-positive man living in Iowa. His crime: Failing to disclose his HIV status to another man before having sex with him.

The man Rhoades slept with did not become infected with HIV. (We don't even know whether the sex they had was unprotected.) Nonetheless, when District Court Judge Bradley Harris sentenced Rhoades in May 2009, he gave Rhoades the toughest sentence possible under the law, likening Rhoades' actions to shooting someone with a gun. And Rhoades himself basically agreed: He pleaded guilty, after all, and from the beginning expressed remorse for his actions.

Then, on Sept. 11 -- just four months into Rhoades' 25-year sentence -- Judge Harris wiped the whole thing out and gave Rhoades five years of probation. Rhoades was released from prison that very day.

Wait. What? Twenty-five years and lifetime parole becomes five years of probation, end of story?

Clearly, Judge Harris felt he had a point to make. He wanted Rhoades to serve as an example to all HIV-positive people. The message he apparently wanted to convey was: Cut it out, you reckless people! Stop firing your HIV-infected fluids at unsuspecting partners, or so help me, I'll put you in prison even longer than people who actually stab someone to death in the heart.

But Judge Harris' sledgehammer-wielding approach to this case may well have resulted in exactly the opposite lesson. If anything, the length of the original sentence made Rhoades, and many others, take a closer look at the reasons behind it. And when you zoom in on many of those HIV disclosure laws, they tend to come up lacking in the logic department. Said Rhoades: "Unfortunately, lay men and even people within the judicial system are not up to date with how fast progress has been made" in the fight against HIV, according to The Iowa Independent.

I imagine it's this last sentiment that many in the HIV community hope will be the ultimate lesson that this ugly story teaches the world at large. Here at, we're aware of at least a few people and HIV/AIDS organizations who contacted Judge Harris and demanded a more reasonable approach. (I should also note that we did not exactly take an unbiased stance; we actively encouraged people to write in with their complaints.) If anything, though, all this affair has taught us is that the criminalization of HIV and lack of knowledge about HIV remains stubbornly, painfully persistent even among those in the U.S. who we'd like to think are highly educated, reasonable people.

Which brings me to wonder: What is going through Judge Harris' mind right now? Is he now humbled and chastened, a wiser man than he was four months ago? Or does he smugly believe he did the right thing by issuing an over-the-top sentence and then attempting to appear magnanimous by wiping it out? Was the dramatically reduced sentence the final stroke in his own, ignorant master plan, or did the pleas of activists educate his mind and sway his heart?

Lastly, where do we go from here? As the debate over HIV exposure laws in the U.S. (and throughout the world) continues to play out, will this case ultimately stand out as a fork in the road, or just another signpost?

Copyright © 2009 Body Health Resources Corporation. All rights reserved.

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