- July 14, 2015
Post submitted by Marvell L. Terry II
The trial of Michael L. Johnson, a 23-year-old Black gay man and former college wrestler, came to a tragic conclusion yesterday when Johnson was sentenced to 30 years in prison for infecting a sexual partner with HIV and exposing four others. The sentencing follows Johnson’s May 14 conviction for violating Missouri state law that makes it a felony for people diagnosed with HIV to have sexual contact without documenting they disclosed their HIV status.
Robin Maril, HRC Senior Legislative Counsel, says “Laws criminalizing the behaviors with near-zero risk for HIV transmission and that fail to account for effective HIV prevention measures -- like condom use and PrEP -- are not just misguided, they are deadly.
HRC’s own State of Equality Index tracked 26 states in 2014 that criminalize behaviors that carry a low or negligible risk of HIV transmission. These laws have little to no basis in modern science and fail to reflect what researchers do know about preventing HIV
Medical experts and advocates have continued to decry Johnson’s conviction, attributing it to a trial that was full of misinformation about HIV transmission and inaccurate stereotypes about men who have sex with men, as well as a justice system that tries, convicts and sentences Black men more harshly than other groups. Johnson was convicted after only two hours of deliberation by a nearly all white jury.
“The criminal statute that Michael Johnson was convicted of violating was originally passed in 1988, at a time when HIV was considered a ‘death sentence,’” explained Mayo Schreiber, Deputy Director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.
“Today, with proper treatment, HIV is a chronic, manageable disease and those with HIV can expect to live a full, healthy life. Yet violation of the Missouri law is a class A felony, with a sentencing range of 10-30 years or life imprisonment. Other class A felonies include murder or child abandonment resulting in death. Punishing Michael Johnson as if he is a murderer because state officials have failed to address a severely outdated, irrational criminal law is not only fundamentally unfair, it is barbaric.”
In light of Johnson’s conviction and sentencing, HRC is working with other advocates to support legislation across the country to modernize laws criminalizing HIV exposure, nondisclosure and transmission and to continue raising awareness about the importance of opposing such laws.
It's critical to educate the community about the scientific and medical realities of HIV in order to reduce the stigma and fear on which these laws are based. For more information, visit hrc.org/hiv and watch a webinar on July 15 at 2:00 pm EST strategizing on HIV criminalization hosted by the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance with panelist Mayo Schrieber (Center for HIV Law and Policy) Jr., Robert Suttle (Sero Project), Steven Thrasher (BuzzFeed) and moderator Charles Stephens (Counter Narrative Project).