Michael Johnson – Photo: St. Charles County Police Department.
A man convicted to 30 years in prison for failing to disclose his HIV status to sexual partners — but who then saw that verdict reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct — has decided to enter a no-contest plea.
Under the terms of the plea, Michael Johnson, 25, would be sentenced to 10 years in prison, but would avoid a trial and be credited with time served.
While Johnson is not admitting to fault with a no-contest plea, the difficulty of defending himself may have factored into his decision to accept the deal.
Missouri’s law requires that a defendant charged with knowingly spreading HIV — whether or not transmission occurred — prove that they disclosed their HIV status prior to sex.
Short a written affidavit, saved chat messages, or a video of the person admitting that they knowingly engaged in consensual sex with an HIV-positive person, the burden of proof is almost impossible to meet.
Given how stringent Missouri’s HIV criminalization law is, had he gone to trial and been found guilty, Johnson could have faced up to 96 years in prison.
Johnson, a former college wrestler for Lindenwood University, was initially sentenced to 30 years in prison for failing to inform gay males with whom he had sex of his HIV-positive diagnosis. But that conviction was overturned after it was revealed that prosecutors had failed to turn over recorded conversations with Johnson at the county jail to the defense.
Those recordings were later used to convict Johnson, and left his attorneys at a disadvantage by railroading them at the last moment.
Adding to the complicated situation is the fact that Johnson has learning disabilities, which may have hindered his ability to understand the charges against him and may even have influenced his statements in those recordings.
Missouri is among a number of states that have adopted laws that propose harsh sentences for those convicted of knowingly exposing others to HIV, even if no transmission of the virus occurred.
In some cases, prosecutions occur even if the participants exercised precautions, such as using a condoms or pre-exposure prophylaxis, or even if the HIV-positive person was on antiretroviral medications and their viral load was undetectable.
Such laws were passed during the time just after the initial HIV epidemic, when the virus was considered fatal and very little was known about how it was transmitted.
“The law treats HIV as a death sentence rather than the treatable, manageable disease it has been for years,” Rose Farnan, of the Greater Kansas City Chapter Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, said in a statement. “Unlike people diagnosed with cancer cause by the HPV virus, people living with HIV have a life expectancy approaching that of HIV negative people.”
Anthony Rothert, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missour Foundation, has noted that the law does not even require intent to harm someone, as with felony murder. Even throughout his trial, no evidence was produced proving that Johnson either understood his condition or intended to infect others maliciously.
Other HIV advocates note that HIV criminalization laws merely create stigma and promote negative stereotypes about HIV-positive people, which, in turn, can worsen the spread of the virus if some people are intimidated into not getting tested. As such, laws criminalizing a failure to disclose one’s status are widely opposed by medical professional, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, the Association of Nurses In AIDS Care, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Rashaan Gilmore, the program director of the Kansas City chapter of Blaqout, says that such laws “foster neither safer sex practices nor shared responsibility for sexual health.”
Advocates also note that HIV rates are higher among people of color, meaning that HIV criminalization laws are more likely to disproportionately target non-whites for the purposes of prosecution.
“It is disturbing that Michael is not yet a free man and was not exonerated after his years-long struggle for justice, but we respect and support his decision not to risk a life behind bars,” Mayo Schreiber, deputy director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy. “It likely is the end of his case, but our work to bring an end to HIV criminal laws like Missouri’s continues.”