Former college wrestler Michael L. Johnson has been convicted of intentionally infecting sexual partners with HIV. This week he was sentenced to 30 years in prison as the case's judge laid into Johnson from the bench:
"The main thing is the profound effect your actions have had on the victims and their families."
Johnson was a wrestler at Lindenwood University outside of St. Louis, Mo. He was expelled from school after the initial charges were brought against him in 2014.
According to the HIV Center for Law & Policy, "32 states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes and 36 states have reported proceedings in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, and spitting."
Under Missouri law, if individuals with HIV are accused of not disclosing their status to their sexual partners, their only defense is to be able to prove disclosure. Verbal consent is often how people "negotiate sex," but verbal disclosure is hard to prove, said Erise Williams, president and CEO of Williams and Associates, Inc., a nonprofit community-based organization in St. Louis that addresses minority health disparities and offers HIV screenings and resources.
Yet some say that laws criminalizing the intentional infection of sexual partners with HIV are unjust and that Johnson should not be serving time. The National Center for Lesbian Rights, along with several partners, has written a scathing attack on Johnson's conviction and sentencing, including allegations of a railroading:
"The State of Missouri was able to convict Michael Johnson without having to prove that he had any intent to infect his sexual partners nor demonstrate that he was in fact the person who transmitted HIV to his sexual partners. We are outraged by the criminalization, arrests and imprisonment of those prosecuted under HIV criminalization laws."
Ultimately cases like this come down to he-said-he-said. Racial dynamics add fuel to the fire in this case: Johnson's accusers are all white. Given the case was tried in St. Charles, Mo., just across the river from now-infamous Ferguson, it's understandable why some oscillate between concern and outrage.
Former Univ. of Maryland wrestler Akil Patterson has become close with Johnson, taking a nurturing approach with the young man whom some defenders have said is illiterate and may not have understood his HIV status, let alone intending to infect someone. Given some of his Twitter posts from 2013, Johnson certainly demonstrated a lack of grammar skills, which may reflect a lack of literacy.
"Sometimes," Patterson told BuzzFeed last year, "I imagine what I might have been able to do to help this kid before he got into this situation."
No one but these six men know what happened between them. At this point, several years later, they may not even know. It's a sad case all the way around; We hope that, if it was not served here, justice finds it way to this case and peace finds its way into Johnson's life.