When Ignorance Kills, Nobody Wins: Advocates Reflect on an HIV-Related Murder Case

Elisha Maxine Henson was a Texas mother with a big love for family, especially her two sons. A stay-at-home mom with a bright smile, Elisha enjoyed riding motorcycles and was a member of a local church. Elisha was well liked and had many friends. Previously employed in the fast food industry, Elisha was living with HIV and was very open about her HIV status. Unfortunately, as a result of her openness, she experienced stigma in the small town where she lived. Earlier this week, 23-year-old Justin Welch pled guilty to the first-degree murder of 30-year-old Elisha, who was strangled to death on April 26, 2014. Welch was sentenced to 50 years in prison. In a May 2014 police interview, Welch admitted to the murder and expressed anger and fear that he had been exposed to HIV through sexual contact with Elisha.

The overall risk of female-to-male transmission of HIV is extremely low and the risk of HIV transmission for a male receiving oral sex from a woman living with HIV is virtually zero. However, despite the lack of risk, inaccurate information and stigma surrounding HIV are pervasive, often resulting in negative consequences, as in this case and sadly in others.

Immediately after news of Henson's murder became public, there was a national outcry from advocates around the country, including Positive Women's Network – USA, a national membership body of women living with HIV. In addition to issuing a statement of solidarity with the family and condemning HIV-associated stigma and violence, Texas HIV advocates engaged in a variety of advocacy efforts to support the grieving family, to encourage responsible, non-stigmatizing media coverage, and to demand justice from the legal system. In the months that have followed, advocates have followed the case with interest and have continued to raise awareness about the devastating consequences of both HIV stigma and violence perpetuated against women living with HIV, declaring a National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women with HIV to honor Elisha, Cicely Bolden, and others. Sadly, three out of four women living with HIV experience violence; this rate, which is far greater than the rate of violence for HIV-negative women, is unacceptable.

The price of stigma and violence is too great to bear. At only 30 years of age, Elisha is dead, leaving her two young sons, mother, siblings, and friends to mourn her absence. Welch will serve a minimum of 25 years of his 50-year prison sentence. Rosalind Smith, who has been charged as an accomplice, has yet to go to trial for her role; it has been alleged that Smith helped dispose of Henson's body. This is an example of senseless violence and unnecessary loss for an act that had virtually zero risk of HIV transmission.

Several months after the tragic day that Elisha was killed, many lives have been negatively impacted and will continue to be affected for years to come. The consequences of HIV stigma are deadly, and only through eradicating stigma and fostering understanding of transmission risks, compassion, and acceptance of people living with HIV will we avoid further tragedies, death, and loss.

We can't bring Elisha, Cicely, or any of the victims of HIV-related deaths back, but we can work to prevent this from happening again. We must acknowledge the insidious ways that HIV stigma contributes to the devaluing of the lives of women with HIV – and the potential deadly consequences of stigma coupled with misinformation about HIV transmission. We challenge everyone, regardless of HIV status, to get accurate, up-to-date information about HIV, and to share that information with others. We also challenge everyone to take an active role in eliminating HIV stigma by talking back to stigma in our daily lives, including our places of work, family, friends, doctors, and even in the media. We all have a role to play in eliminating violence against people living with HIV.