It took just over two hours for a suburban St. Louis, Missouri, jury to recommend Michael L. Johnson serve more than 60 years in prison on May 15.* If Johnson serves that full time, it could become a life sentence for the 23-year-old former student and star wrestler at Lindenwood University in St. Charles. Johnson was convicted of “recklessly infecting” one male sexual partner with HIV and exposing four others to the virus.
Johnson has been HIV positive since at least early 2013 and possibly as early as 2011, according to documentation disclosed at the trial, and prosecutors say he did not reveal his serostatus to sexual partners. That meant Johnson was liable for prosecution under Missouri’s draconian HIV criminalization statute, which essentially categorizes each new infection in the state as attempted murder. “What we have here is a perfect storm of malice,” Assistant Prosecutor Phil Groenweghe told the jurors in closing arguments.
Not exactly. A more nuanced analysis of Johnson’s case reveals instead the “perfect storm” of homophobia, racism and criminal justice that shapes the health of so many black gay men.
Missouri is one of at least 32 states and two territories that criminalize exposure or transmission of HIV, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy. Some laws penalize having sex even after revealing serostatus to a partner—and regardless if a condom was used. The United States has led the world with “thousands” of such prosecutions, according to the United Nations-backed Global Commission on HIV and the Law.
Most of these laws were enacted at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s—before life-saving antiretrovirals were introduced—and as such they do not reflect modern science, which has made an HIV diagnosis a chronic but manageable condition. For example: The goal of aggressive antiretroviral therapy is to suppress a viral load—the amount of HIV in a sample of blood—to become “undetectable.” Once a positive person has achieved viral suppression, that person is extremely unlikely to transmit HIV to a sex partner. But criminalization laws do not take this into account.
Nor do these laws make sense as a deterrent from supposedly “reckless” behavior. The overwhelming body of research, going back more than a decade, has established that the vast majority of new infections each year are contracted from someone who does not know that they are HIV positive. “Nearly 92 percent” of new infections “likely occur after contact with people who don’t know they carry HIV or do not receive treatment,” according to a February 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Contol and Prevention.