Court overturns conviction of man jailed for 30 years for ‘recklessly’ transmitting HIV
An appeals court has overturned the conviction of a HIV-positive former college wrestling champion who was jailed for recklessly transmitting HIV to partners.
In May 2015, Michael Johnson, a former Missouri wrestling star known as ‘Tiger Mandingo’, was found guilty by a court of a number of charges after seeking men for unprotected sex via hook-up apps, despite being HIV-positive.
He was found guilty of one count of recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, one count of attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV, and three counts of recklessly exposing partners to HIV.
The charge of reckless transmission relates to someone not disclosing their HIV-positive status to sexual partners.
Under Missouri state law, it is an offence to fail to disclose your HIV status to a sexual partner – but Johnson’s partner Dylan King Lemons became concerned after finding Johnson on gay hook-up apps.
Johnson testified that he had informed all six men about his HIV status – but was jailed for 30 years failing to disclose the information.
But the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District has now overturned the conviction over evidence which was only handed to defence attorneys on the first day of the trial.
The Appeals Court ruled that Judge Jon Cunningham had only disclosed recordings of phone calls made from jail to defence attorneys on the first day of the trial.
A three judge panel of the court said the court did not consider arguments made by Johnson’s attorneys that his sentence was grossly disproportionate to the crime.
His attorneys had argued that the sentence constitutionally violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment,
A new trial has been ordered for the former college wrestling champion.
Judge Jon Cunningham, who issued the sentence last year, told Johnson he had committed “very severe” crimes. Prosecutors said he didn’t tell the partners he had HIV. “The main thing is the profound effect your actions have had on the victims and their families,” the judge said.
Many states have laws that make it a crime to fail to disclose your HIV status, even if sex is protected or viral load is undetectable.
The laws are controversial, with some HIV campaigners calling for a more nuanced system.
Kenyon Farrow, of the Treatment Action Group, has said of the case: “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.
“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.”
In England and Wales, you can be found guilty of reckless HIV transmission for knowingly transmitting HIV – while in Scotland you can also face charges for exposing people to HIV even if transmission did not take place.