The Missouri Court of Appeals has thrown out a 30-year prison sentence and ordered a new trial for a former college wrestler accused of failing to inform some of his sexual partners of his HIV status. Michael Johnson, an HIV-positive black man with learning disabilities, was convicted last year of violating an out-of-date Missouri law that criminalizes the sexual conduct of people living with HIV.
The court of appeals’ decision is based on the state’s failure to turn over last-minute conversations recorded at the county jail that were subsequently used to obtain Johnson’s conviction. By failing to notify the defense of the evidence in their possession, the court found, the prosecution had essentially railroaded Johnson in a way that could have significantly altered the case, reports The Associated Press.
Presiding Judge James Dowd, in his ruling overturning the conviction, chastised the prosecution, accusing them of adopting a “trial-by-ambush strategy.” Johnson will now face a new trial, in which he’s been charged with one count of recklessly infecting another with HIV, and four counts alleging he exposed or tried to expose others to the virus between January 2013 and October 2013.
Prosecutors maintained throughout his first trial that Johnson had deliberately lied to sexual partners about his HIV status. During the trial, St. Charles Police Detective Don Stepp testified that more than a dozen other men had approached the department claiming to have had sex with Johnson after learning of his arrest under Missouri’s HIV criminalization statute. But Stepp also said those men didn’t want to file formal complaints, because they were not out to their families.
BuzzFeed‘s Steven Thrasher reported in 2014 that prosecutors have a form from the state of Missouri, dating back to January 2013, signed by Johnson, acknowledging that he had been diagnosed with HIV. However, Thrasher also noted in his article that Johnson was never given legal counsel when he signed the form, many months prior to his arrest, and may not have understood the legal implications of the document he was signing.
Lambda Legal HIV Project Director Scott Schoettes, who worked with Johnson’s lawyer to help prepare for trial, said that the LGBT legal organization was “elated” at the overturn of Johnson’s conviction, and called on Missouri to change its laws to eliminate HIV-based prosecutions in the absence of the intent to harm and in cases where there is a substantial risk of transmission.
Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other LGBT and HIV/AIDS advocates have taken issue not just with Missouri’s law, but similar laws, which were written at a time when HIV diagnosis was considered a death sentence. At that time, little was known about how the virus was transmitted or what safeguards can be used to protect against infection, such as the positive partner maintaining an undetectable status, the use of PrEP for the negative sexual partner, or the use of condoms by both partners.
“Living with HIV is not a crime,” Schoettes said in a statement. “Except in the most extreme cases, the criminal law is far too blunt an instrument to address the subtle dynamics of HIV disclosure. Willingness to be open about HIV status will be created only by the destigmatization of HIV and policies that ensure people living with HIV are not singled out for discrimination or special prohibitions and punishments. Prosecutions like this — under antiquated laws like Missouri’s — take us in the opposite direction.
“Given the outdated nature and extremely punitive nature of Missouri’s law, Lambda Legal is hopeful the State will not appeal this decision, and will instead work to resolve the case without the need for another trial,” Schoettes added.