Michael Johnson, a 23-year-old Missouri man accused of "spreading HIV," has been found guilty of one count of recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, one count of attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV, and three counts of recklessly exposing partners to HIV. Advocates from across the country have rebuked the case for recklessly promoting stigma against people living with HIV in a case marred by homophobic and racist overtones.
Johnson, a former college student and wrestler at Linwood University, was accused of exposing five people to HIV and transmitting HIV to one partner without revealing his HIV serostatus prior to sexual activity. Johnson faces a decades-long sentence -- possibly life in prison -- and will be required to register as a sex offender. The case is only the most recent of countless examples of people living with HIV being targeted by laws that criminalize HIV serostatus.
Media coverage at the time of Johnson's arrest depicted him as a wanton predator (despite no stated intent to infect others with HIV) and highlighted the fact that he is African-American and the majority of his accusers were white. The trial was held in St. Charles, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, is 91% white. Of the final jury selected, only one of the 12 jury members was black; the rest were white.
In addition, the jury selection process revealed that many potential jurors believed that HIV criminalization laws were necessary to reduce HIV transmission despite no evidence to support this belief. About half the jury believed that homosexuality is a choice and is wrong. When questioned before the trial, only 13 of the 52 people in the jury pool believed that homosexuality was not a sin.
After hearing three days of testimony, jurors deliberated for a mere two hours and 20 minutes before returning guilty verdicts for five of the 6 charges.
Throughout the trial, the prosecution played into scientifically unfounded fears and misconceptions of HIV, presenting witnesses that described the disease as "terminal." Nearly all HIV criminal laws are based on incorrect assumptions about HIV, either outdated by advances in science since they were passed decades ago or based on stigmatizing and scientifically inaccurate myths about how the disease is transmitted.
HIV criminalization refers to laws that "impose criminal penalties on people living with HIV who know their HIV status and who potentially expose others to HIV." Criminalization laws track back to the early days of the HIV epidemic when several states created statutes that would penalize people who knew their HIV-positive status and had possibly exposed other people to HIV. Currently, more than 30 states have laws on the books that criminalize HIV exposure, although the behaviors that constitute exposure vary by state and are often not based on scientific knowledge related to HIV transmission. For example, some statutes consider spitting or scratching as a potential HIV exposure despite the inability to transmit HV via these methods. Most states have not updated their laws to reflect our modern understanding of the effectiveness of today's antiretroviral therapies and prevention strategies like consistent condom usage and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
In addition, criminalization laws undermine efforts to end the HIV epidemic and further marginalize people living with HIV. Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates show that one in seven people are unaware that they are HIV positive. This means that a significant percentage of people living with HIV are not even aware of their own diagnosis and would not be able to disclose their HIV serostatus to their sexual partners. Many experts believe that HIV criminalization laws can make people less likely to get tested for HIV and place undue burden of managing sexual risk on the person known to be living with HIV.
As Scott Schoettes from Lambda Legal has noted, HIV criminalization laws "place all of the responsibility on one party: the party that's HIV positive" and further stigmatizes HIV. Criminal cases can also lead to public disclosure of a person's HIV status even without a conviction. A recent study of legal cases due to HIV exposure in Nashville, Tennessee revealed a significant racial disparity: Black people convicted on HIV exposure charges tended to receive significantly longer sentences than white individuals.
Several professional organizations, including the American Medical Association and the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors have called for HIV criminalization law reform, and the U.S. Department of Justice released a guide in 2014 that advised states to have policies that "reflect contemporary understanding of HIV transmission routes and associated benefits of treatment."
AIDSWatch 2015 included advocacy efforts on behalf of the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, which calls for nationwide review of federal and state policy that leads to HIV exposure criminal cases in order to better align them with current scientific and public health evidence about HIV transmission.
This is a developing story. The sentencing phase of Michael Johnson's trial is taking place Friday, May 15. AIDS United is closely monitoring the case as it advances.