Michael Johnson Sentenced to 30 Years in Prison for HIV Transmission, Exposure

Associate Editor

Michael Johnson, an HIV-positive former college wrestler from St. Charles, Missouri, was sentenced on July 13 to 30 years and six months in prison. Johnson, a black, gay man, faced up to 60 years in prison for four counts of exposure to HIV and one count of HIV transmission, the latter of which is a class A felony in Missouri and carries a minimum 10-year sentence. A jury found him guilty on these counts on May 15, and recommended a 30-year sentence.

For comparison, voluntary manslaughter is a class B felony in Missouri, and carries a maximum prison term of 15 years.

The sentencing judge, Jon Cunningham, told Johnson he committed "very severe crimes." However, he ordered that Johnson's exposure sentence (30.5 years) and transmission sentence (30 years) run concurrently, rather than consecutively.

Under Missouri law, the jury that convicted Johnson in May is the same jury that recommended his sentence, although the presiding judge was responsible for the final sentencing. According to BuzzFeed, some of his jurors believed homosexuality is a sin. They reached their verdict in only two hours.

According to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports from the trial, one of the accuser's mothers asked that Johnson be given life in jail because her son got a "life sentence without parole" -- a reference to his HIV-positive status.

Jeffrey McCune, a Missouri-based scholar, artist and activist who attended Johnson's trial, wrote in an opinion article for TheBody.com that he felt Johnson was treated unfairly throughout the proceedings. He wrote, "Michael Johnson -- the young, black, college wrestler, with whom several men (mostly white) hooked up -- was subjected to a scene in legal theater, where all the actors on stage were positioned as innocent victims of what the prosecutors called his 'HIV semen.'"

The sentencing closes another chapter in the story of Johnson's experiences as a person living with HIV, which began with his diagnosis on Jan. 7, 2013. He was arrested in October 2013 while attending a college class, after someone with whom he was intimate called the police when they found out Johnson was HIV positive.

Jonhson's story will continue, however: Advocates nationwide say they are continuing the fight against HIV criminalization laws in general, and supporting Johnson specifically.

Mayo Schreiber, the deputy director of the Center for HIV Law & Policy, said that he, along with the case's public defender and a volunteer law firm, are awaiting trial transcripts and a consultation with Johnson before filing an appeal with the Missouri Appellate Court.

Schreiber said the sentence given to Johnson was "disproportionate" to his crime and that they could be at least two points to consider in the appeal. He contends that the law used to convict Johnson, which was written in 1988 and revised in 1997, is outdated. Secondly, marking Johnson a class A felon -- on par with murderers and people who abandon children for death -- is a severe, unnecessary comparison, Schreiber asserts.

"Most people back [when the law was passed] thought [an HIV diagnosis] was a 'death sentence' and so punishment at that time, some would argue, was commensurate with that. However, this is 2015, it is now a chronic, manageable disease, and with proper treatment a person with HIV can live a fully healthy life," he said.

Advocates have also amplified their messaging against HIV criminalization, stating that these arcane laws only further HIV stigma and actually produce an effect that runs counter to their intent: They spread HIV.

In a press release from the National Center for HIV Law & Policy, Jeffrey Birnbaum, M.D., M.P.H., a nationally recognized expert on HIV among adolescents, said, "HIV criminal laws have no positive impact on the spread of HIV. Sentencing people living with HIV to prison for having sex will, based on decades of HIV clinical experience, only drive people away from health centers where they can learn their HIV status and get the medical care they need."

One of Johnson's former college instructors, Kimber Mallet, spoke out against the sentencing, saying that it unnecessarily ruined a promising young life. "Michael was kind, hard-working student who overcame a learning disability to enter college and become a promising athlete," she said in a press release. "His sentence is tragic and likely will cost him his future, with no benefit to Missouri taxpayers who pay for this severe form of punishment. I am hopeful that the appeal of his sentence will produce a more just outcome."

Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @mathewrodriguez, like his Facebook page or visit him on his personal website.