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Johnson HIV conviction reversed
by Matt Simonette
2016-12-20

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Judges from the Missouri Eastern District Court of Appeals, on Dec. 20, reversed the convictions of gay college student Michael Johnson, who was sentenced to three decades in prison for exposing persons to HIV, and ordered that he be retried.

The appellate judges said in their ruling that the lower court incorrectly allowed evidence—phone calls Johnson made from jail that were not sufficiently disclosed in advance to the defense—in Johnson's trial.

Johnson was an athlete enrolled at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles who was accused of infecting two people with HIV and exposing four others to the virus. He was ultimately convicted in 2015 of one count of recklessly infecting an individual with HIV, one count of recklessly exposing an individual to HIV, and three counts of recklessly attempting to expose an individual to HIV. His sentence was 30 years in prison.

Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, who provided assistance to Johnson's public defender in preparation for his defense, said in a statement that his organization "is elated with the outcome at the appellate level in Michael Johnson's case, and the second chance it provides Michael. The real barrier to justice for Michael is the law itself—and we must energize efforts to change the laws and eliminate HIV-based prosecutions in the absence of the intent to harm."

Johnson refused to accept a plea-bargain. His appeal also maintained that his sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The appellate court did not consider the merits for that point however, since the circumstances surrounding the inadmissible evidence were enough to warrant a new trial.

Johnson's case was profiled extensively by Buzzfeed, which documented how systemic racism, classism, homophobia and HIV-stigmatization informed the athlete's investigation and prosecution.

"Living with HIV is not a crime," added Schoettes. "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."

See www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp .


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