A Missouri judge on Monday sentenced a 23-year-old man to 30 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of exposing his partners to the HIV virus.
Prosecutors accused Michael Johnson of not telling his sexual partners he had HIV. He was accused of transmitting HIV to one sex partner and risking the infection of four others.
St. Charles County Circuit Judge Jon Cunningham, who issued the sentence, told Johnson he had committed “very severe” crimes, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Johnson’s conviction taps into a big, complicated issue: America’s HIV criminalization laws, like the one used to convict Johnson, ignore decades of medical science, fail to curb infection rates, and disproportionately punish black men.
“Although [I’m] saddened by his 30 year sentence, I'm hoping to see more public health organizations and policy makers stand up and show that Black Lives Matter. No matter the details, Johnson is another young black man caught in the justice system that shows no remorse or respect for black bodies,” said Drew-Shane Daniels, editor of Mused Magazine Online, an online publication that published an open letter in support of Johnson.
“This story will continue to fuel against same-sex and race relations skeptics if we don't begin to address how education is critical in not only preventing the spread of HIV but how we approach this epidemic,” Daniels told Fusion in an email.
There are at least 35 states that have laws that specifically criminalize exposing another person to HIV. In 29 states, it is a felony, according to a 2013 ProPublica analysis. Many of the laws were created decades ago, during an era when an HIV diagnosis could mean one had only months left to live.
The Missouri law that criminalizes HIV was introduced in 1997 and explicitly excludes condoms as a defense.
Public health experts say they were prepared for the decision.
“I can't say we are surprised, considering the type of ignorance and hysteria that marked the media accounts of this case and apparently also were reflected in the comments of the prosecutor and the court,” said Catherine Hanssens, director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy, a legal resource center for people affected by HIV.
“But the sentence reflects the continuing ignorance and HIV and the unfortunate silence of state health officials who should be openly, publicly addressing it,” Hanssens told Fusion.
Johnson’s sentence is equivalent to that issued in a serious homicide case.
Johnson would have received a less severe punishment if he had actually killed someone while driving under the influence. In Missouri, killing someone while driving under the influence would be a “Class C” felony, and jail time would not exceed seven years.
His sentence may also have been less severe if he would of never known his HIV status. Many public health advocates actually argue HIV criminalization 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,” said Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum, director of the Brooklyn based Health and Education Alternatives for Teens, a treatment and prevention center for adolescents and young adults.