On July 13, 2015, Michael L. Johnson, a former Lindenwood University wrestler, was sentenced to 30 years and six months in prison for four counts of HIV exposure and one count of HIV transmission. His story has been the subject of headlines since mid-2014. In the mainstream media, Johnson is often painted as a sexual predator -- which is harsh and unfair, just like his sentence. This case deserves a deeper look to understand the dangers of HIV criminalization and how it increases stigma while further silencing the dialogue around HIV awareness.
Most importantly, we need to understand how Michael's treatment can impact the lives of many people living with HIV, especially African Americans. What's scary is the attitude of many people who feel that Michael's punishment is well deserved. A young man's life is being taken away based on a case of "he said, he said." This situation could play out for many people living with HIV, and it's just not fair.
St. Charles, Missouri, where Michael was tried, is known as a wealthy and conservative county. About 91% of its residents are white, while 4% are African American. Just by these facts, I can only imagine that, no matter what information Michael's defense presented, his fate was sealed. Moreover, according to a Buzzfeed article, the jury included people who said homosexuality is a sin. It's not hard to see how a black gay male who had sexual encounters with six men, four of whom were white, could be found guilty in such a county.
I had the opportunity to attend a webinar hosted by the Counter Narrative Project to get a community update on Michael and his case. This webinar, led by Mayo Schreiber, deputy director at the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP), deepened my commitment to help however I can.
Michael Is Currently Isolated in Disciplinary Segregation
As of now, Michael is incarcerated at the South Central Correctional Center (SCCC) in Licking, Missouri. Mayo explained that Michael was administratively convicted of a disciplinary infraction back in May of this year. Now, the reason behind the infraction is unclear. However, based on my own reading and understanding, disciplinary infractions can be issued for the most trivial reasons.
Michael has been appealing that infraction through the prison administration process. Unfortunately, he's been placed in disciplinary segregation, which is similar to solitary confinement. He is only allowed out for an hour a day and allowed to shower two to three times a week. He also cannot receive or make phone calls, but he can send and receive letters. Imagine how highly restrictive this must be for Michael.
From what Mayo understands, Michael is receiving treatment, but Mayo doesn't know more than that about the quality of his health care.
Michael Had No Previous Criminal Record or Convictions
Michael was born in 1992, the youngest of five children in a single-parent household. Despite financial hardships, a learning disability and asthma, Michael worked hard in school and was determined to do well in sports and academics.
He graduated from high school in 2010, and that same year, he won the Indiana state high school wrestling championship for his weight class. In the spring of 2012, he earned his associate degree from Lincoln College. He was then accepted at Lindenwood University, where he attended and joined the wrestling team until he was arrested.
Prior to his trial and sentencing, Michael had no other felonies. Michael was convicted for a Class A felony under Missouri Law. The state of Missouri equated Michael's act of HIV transmission with second-degree murder -- an example of a Class A felony.
The Judgment Is Being Appealed
Michael is being represented on appeal by the Missouri State Public Defender's appeal office. The appeal was filed in April 2016. The intermediate appellate court is located in St. Louis, Missouri.
May 2016, CHLP, along with other organizations, filed an amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief -- a brief filed by a person or group who is not party to a case but has an interest in the court's decision. More than 20 national organizations signed on to the brief, ranging from the Missouri AIDS Taskforce to the National Black Justice Coalition.
Mayo remains hopeful that Michael's defense will win the appeal, although there is no guarantee. Reaching a decision on an appeal could take several months and different outcomes could occur, such as a decision that Michael's case should be retried.
If Michael's appeal is rejected, then the next step is to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Missouri Has Unjust and Outdated HIV Criminalization Laws
During the trial, the state of Missouri maintained that Michael was aware of his HIV status and elected not to disclose his status prior to engaging in sexual activity with the complainants. However, Michael maintained that he had informed all his partners of his HIV status.
In the Webinar, Mayo made a point to mention the state of Missouri's statutes as often as possible because -- as with the HIV criminalization laws in many states -- they are strict and flawed. The law used to charge Michael was enacted in 1988 when little was known about HIV and it was widely believed that having the virus was a death sentence, when we know today that it is not. Moreover, these laws further increase HIV stigma, which makes those with a positive status less likely to disclose.
Outside Support Appreciated by Michael Johnson and His Family
From the brief conversations he has had with Michael, Mayo believes that Michael has remained optimistic throughout the entire process, and that Michael and his family have appreciated the support from all organizations involved in his pursuit of justice and freedom.
I encourage you to listen to the webinar to understand the gravity of this case. Michael's sentence is grossly disproportionate to the offense for which he's been convicted. From what I gather, the main issue is proving Michael's intent. Unfortunately, the plaintiffs' words were accepted over Michael's. We don't know what was individually discussed between Michael and the six men with whom he was intimately involved.
Keep in mind the county in which Michael was tried. It would be hard to convince a conservative jury that Michael did advise the men of his status. The Missouri statutes need to change. If Michael's appeal is granted and he wins, this will hopefully start a domino effect to change and restructure other statutes that involve HIV exposure and transmission.
The best way to aid Michael is to contact local organizations and the legislature in Missouri. However, Mayo suggested contacting Michael's lawyers to get more information on ways to further support Michael's cause. Also we can use social media as a means to shed light on the HIV criminalization statutes and how they affect people living with HIV.
Kevin L. Tarver is a freelance writer, gay activist and content creator for BamaBoiBlues.com. Established on July 15th, 2010, BamaBoiBlues.com documents experiences that often go undiscussed within gay culture, especially within the African-American gay community.