Jury Finds Michael Johnson Guilty of HIV Transmission and Exposure
Johnson Faces Up to 60 Years in Prison
On May 15, a jury found 23-year-old Michael Johnson, a former college wrestler at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, guilty of one count of HIV transmission and four counts of HIV exposure. Johnson's time in prison could range from 30 to 60 years, depending on whether the judge decides to have Johnson serve the sentences consecutively or concurrently. The most severe count is HIV transmission, a class A felony in Missouri, and carries a 30-year sentence.
For comparison, voluntary manslaughter is a class B felony in Missouri, and carries a maximum prison term of 15 years.
Under Missouri law, the jury that convicted Johnson on Thursday was the same jury that determined sentencing. The jury that convicted Michael was all white except for one black juror, and, according to BuzzFeed, some jurors believed that homosexuality was a sin. The jury reached the verdict after just over two hours of deliberation.
BuzzFeed's Steven Thrasher, whose earlier profile of Johnson and the case was much-lauded, wrote, "In the end, the prosecution was successful in framing the complicated case around a simple premise: Did Johnson disclose his status or not?"
To that end, the prosecution called on several of Johnson's sexual partners who said that he did not disclose, though Johnson claims he did. The prosecution also called on Dr. Otha Myles who described HIV as a "terminal" disease, though sound science shows normal or near normal life expectancy with access to successful medication.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the accuser's mothers spoke about the effects that HIV had on her son physically and emotionally. She asked the jury to remember this when making its decision.
"My son got a life sentence without parole," she said. "So I ask you, why does Michael Johnson deserve any less?"
One of the many comparisons thrown around during the trial compared Johnson's action to drunk driving. According to Mayo Schreiber, a criminal defense lawyer at the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP), if it were treated as drunk driving, Johnson would face a maximum of six months in jail. "The punishment Michael Johnson faces is equivalent to a murder sentence. For drunk driving charges to earn a similar sentence there must be multiple dead bodies," Schreiber said.
The decision closes another chapter in this long journey of Michael Johnson, whose story begins with his diagnosis on Jan. 7, 2013. He was arrested in October of 2013 during a college class.
The HIV community has been very public in condemning the verdict. In an interview with the New York Daily News, Andrea Sears of CHLP said the verdict "has nothing to do with the actual risk of transmission. It's prosecution based on fear generated during the early days of the epidemic. It has no relation to reality anymore." She added that Johnson's conviction is a direct result of one of the most basic public health messages for gay men: getting an HIV test.
"The state of Missouri has spent lots of money to educate people about the importance of taking protective measures during sexual activity and getting tested for HIV. By prosecuting Michael Johnson and failing to update their laws the state is spending money in one way that undercuts public money spent to fight HIV," said LaTrischa Miles, co-founder of Positive Women's Network - USA, in a press release.
CHLP Executive Director Catherine Hanssens said in a press release, "Michael Johnson's conviction for exposing one of his sex partners to HIV and 'attempting to expose' four others to the virus reinforces both an 'ignorance is bliss' approach to sexual health and personal responsibility, and public hysteria and misconceptions about HIV."
She added, "For the conviction to be fair, you have to believe that Mr. Johnson's willing sexual partners are blameless victims who have every right to rely on a potential sex partner's statements about his health status as the sole basis for deciding whether sex poses any risks. You also have to believe that his actions are the equivalent of murder."
A judge will hand down Johnson's sentence in July.