A former college student and wrestler on Thursday was found guilty of “recklessly infecting” a partner with HIV and exposing the virus to four others. Michael L. Johnson, 23, now faces a maximum of life in prison at his sentencing hearing on Friday in St. Charles County, Missouri.
It may be easy to think Johnson deserves these consequences—jurors deliberated just two and a half hours. But HIV-rights advocates say laws that criminalize the transmission of HIV, like the one used to convict Johnson, ignore decades of medical science, fail to curb infection rates, and disproportionately punish black men.
The Missouri law is so archaic, experts say, that Johnson could still be charged with the same felonies even if he had an undetectable viral load, which greatly reduces the risk of transmission and if he had worn a condom.
“If people are so concerned with HIV transmission, then perhaps the Missouri legislature and Governor Nixon should start by repealing this law, and expanding Medicaid to ensure everyone with and at risk for HIV, has access to appropriate services and healthcare,” said Kenyon Farrow, the U.S. and global health policy director for the Treatment Action Group, an AIDS research policy organization.
Update: The jury announced their recommended sentence on Friday afternoon. For count one, transmitting the disease, the jury sentenced Johnson to 30 years. For three counts of exposure he was sentenced to 5.5 years each. On a more serious charge of exposure he received 14 years, coming to a cumulative total of 60 years.
However, Johnson has requested a sentencing assessment report to have a judge review his history and decide if he can serve that time concurrently, potentially cutting prison time in half.
A judge will make that decision mid July, according Leslie Knight, spokesperson for the St. Charles County prosecutor's office.
On average the state of Missouri spends an estimated $22,350 per prisoner per year. If Johnson, 23, goes to jail for life, just imagine how those million dollars could be used to make sure young people in the state have an understanding of basic sex education.
The Johnson case has largely focused on finger pointing, since there’s no evidence Johnson infected his partners. Johnson maintains he remembers telling his partners he had HIV. His partners said in court Johnson never disclosed that information.
But regardless of what information Johnson did or did not disclose, the big elephant in the room is that two people knowingly engaged in anal sex without a condom and apparently did not have a full understanding of the potential consequences.
“Throwing people in jail is probably the worst thing you can do if you want to encourage people to feel comfortable enough to get tested for HIV, receive treatment and openly discuss their status,” said Farrow.
Multiple studies have found there is little evidence to supports HIV criminalization laws’ effectiveness in reducing HIV incidence. The American Medical Association along with the Infectious Diseases Society of America have publicly condemned laws that criminalize HIV.
There isn’t a national database that provides demographic data on racial identity or economic status of individuals who are charged of HIV specific crimes, but experts believe black men may be disproportionately hit with these cases.
“Persons who were black were more likely to be convicted of criminal HIV exposure related to a sexual interaction than persons who were white,” according to a study published in the in the public health journal AIDS and Behavior that analyzed 11 years of Nashville, Tennessee court records.
A similar analysis conducted in the state of Michigan also found “there was an overrepresentation of African-American men” charged for HIV-specific offenses.
“If everyone wants to jump on the black lives matter slogan, then they must take seriously the life of a 23-year-old black gay man in Missouri who deserves a chance at a life, not a cage," said Farrow.