After serving nearly five years of a 30-year prison sentence, Michael Johnson, aka "Tiger Mandingo," has now been released from Boonville Correctional Center in Missouri. His conviction was overturned in 2016, but Johnson agreed to a plea deal instead of another trial. Originally charged with "recklessly" transmitting HIV in 2013, his case made headlines as HIV advocacy groups called out the early biases and unfair treatment of the case, in which intersections of race and prejudiced concepts of criminality played a major role from the very beginning.
HIV Criminalization Laws
During the height of the HIV epidemic, most states enacted criminalization laws out of public fear. These laws established criminal "penalties for failing to disclose infection, for exposing others to the disease, and for transmitting the disease intentionally or unintentionally. In many cases, these laws apply regardless of protective measures the HIV-positive person may take," according to the American Academy of HIV Medicine.
As of 2018, 26 states have laws penalizing persons living with HIV, despite the advancements in medicine, treatment, and prevention following the height of the epidemic nearly 25 years ago. These laws can carry charges as small as reckless endangerment and as serious as the maximum of attempted murder, with severe jail time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) breaks these laws down into five categories across the country:
- HIV-specific criminal laws criminalize behaviors that can potentially expose another to HIV.
- STD/communicable/infectious disease criminal laws criminalize behaviors that can potentially expose another to STD/communicable/infectious diseases. This might include HIV.
- Sentence enhancement specific to HIV are laws that do not criminalize a behavior but increase the sentence length when a person commits certain crimes while infected with HIV.
- Sentence enhancement specific to STD are laws that do not criminalize a behavior but increase the sentence length when a person commits certain crimes while infected with an STD. This might include HIV.
- No HIV criminalization laws.
2013: Michael Johnson Is Arrested
According to BuzzFeed, In 2013, a white male college student found Johnson's profile on a popular gay dating app under the username "Tiger Mandingo." Both he and Johnson were attending Lindenwood University, where Johnson had recently transferred in and played on the wrestling team.
A month after this initial connection on the app, they hooked up, and the student performed oral sex on Johnson, after Johnson told him he was "clean" -- a term often used to designate that one is not HIV positive or living with any other sexually transmitted infections. Later that year in October, the two hooked up again, having unprotected anal sex. After their second hook-up a few days later on October 10, Johnson contacted him, letting him know, "I found out I have a disease."
On that same day, the St. Charles Police Department pulled Michael Johnson out of class and arrested him. The initial charges were one count of recklessly infecting another with HIV and four counts of attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV -- all felony counts in the state of Missouri.
From the beginning of the case, HIV advocates and activists took issue with the application of archaic HIV criminalization laws being used in what quickly seemed to be a racially motivated prosecution involving a white accuser of young black man. The accuser was tested for HIV, which came back negative, but he still publicly stated about Johnson, "He infected someone with HIV. Without medication, that person could get AIDS, so he's slowly killing someone. It's a form of murder, in a sense. I hate to say it, since he's a nice guy."
2015: The Trial and Conviction
Steven Thrasher, who has covered Johnson's case for BuzzFeed, reported that of 51 potential jurors, only one "appeared to be nonwhite." Half said they believed being gay was a choice. Two-thirds intimated that they believed being gay was a sin. All the jurors identified as straight and HIV negative. All the jurors said they believed HIV-positive people who do not inform their partners of their status should be prosecuted.
From the beginning of the case, it was clear that homosexuality and black race were being put on trial. Six white accusers each testified that Johnson told them he was "clean" prior to engaging in unprotected sexual acts with them -- despite numerous contradictions from statements some of these same men had made in police reports previously.
His main accuser, Dylan King-Lemons, claimed that Johnson had actually transmitted the virus to him -- despite, when initially testing positive, telling the doctor that it needed to be narrowed down between two sexual partners. Although King-Lemons tested positive, no genetic fingerprinting was ever done to confirm whether Johnson did in fact transmit the same strain of the virus to him. Circumstantial evidence was used instead, linking the fact that both had gonorrhea to a conclusion that therefore Johnson is where King-Lemons' infection came from.
Another accuser, Andrew Tryon, was filmed having sex with Johnson consensually. The film showcased Johnson "topping" Tryon and then ejaculating on his back. Other evidence presented by prosecutor Philip Groenweghe showed Johnson using his fingers to feed Tryon what the prosecutor called "HIV-infected semen." Despite Tryon's statements on the stand, the video shown didn't match any of his prior statements about his sexual encounters with Johnson as told to the police -- more contradictions.
In the end, Johnson was convicted on all five counts, with a cumulative sentence of 60 years -- which at sentencing was cut in half to 30 years.
December 2016: Court of Appeals Reverses Guilty Verdict
According to Mic, "a Missouri appeals court found 'fundamental unfairness' in Johnson's original trial, as prosecutors withheld evidence -- tapes of phone calls Johnson made from prison -- from the judge until the morning of the trial. By withholding evidence, the prosecution 'prevented Johnson from preparing a meaningful defense.'"
This decision immediately prompted the prosecutor's office to seek a reversal of the reversal from the higher courts. In April 2017, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the decision from the lower court to throw out the conviction of Johnson. Following this decision, prosecutors promised they would retry the case.
Instead of retrying the case, Johnson agreed to a plea of "no contest" and accepted a 10-year plea deal. Johnson had already served four years in jail and prison, and his attorney advised that based on good behavior and no prior convictions, seeing that he was eligible for parole, he could be out in six to 18 months.
Johnson left the courtroom with a message to his friends and supporters: "I just want to say thank you all, I appreciate your being here, and I love you."
Thrasher was present when Johnson was released after serving more than five years. Johnson was all smiles, stating, "I feel great," as he walked away from the correctional facility.
One of the prosecutors for the case has since had a change of stance on Missouri's HIV criminalization laws and is now lobbying for a change through House Bill 167. In support of the bill, prosecutor Timothy Lohmar testified that he "had a case a few years ago that got a lot of national attention, and it wasn't in a good way," which he found "embarrassing." He said, "I was hamstrung in a sense because I was forced to operate under the current laws that we now have. Which I would agree are antiquated, outdated, and based upon something that science would prove is not accurate." Although the bill did not pass, its sponsors will attempt to pass it again during the next legislative session.
Thrasher informed Johnson of the prosecutor's new stance, to which he stated, "Maybe my trial did happen in some way to motivate some change."
In 2016, the CDC released data stating that one in two black men who have sex with men will contract HIV in their lifetime. Despite HIV still being at epidemic levels in various communities, treatment advancements have allowed for people living with HIV to get to an undetectable status, meaning the virus can no longer be transmitted sexually.
HIV criminalization laws continue to be detrimental to progress needed to stop the epidemic, often making people fearful to get tested and shaming those who are positive from feeling safe about disclosure.
Twenty-six states still currently have laws criminalizing HIV.