National HIV experts say conviction out of touch with current science and HIV prevention strategies
Catherine Hanssens, Executive Director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy and an attorney with more than 30 years of experience in HIV legal and policy work, said:
- "Michael Johnson's conviction for exposing one of his sex partners to HIV and "attempting to expose" four others to the virus reinforces both an "ignorance is bliss" approach to sexual health and personal responsibility, and public hysteria and misconceptions about HIV. "
- "For the conviction to be fair, you have to believe that Mr. Johnson's willing sexual partners are blameless victims who have every right to rely on a potential sex partner's statements about his health status as the sole basis for deciding whether sex poses any risks. You also have to believe that his actions are the equivalent of murder."
- "People living with human papillomavirus ( HPV ), Herpes, treatment-resistant gonorrhea or other treatable if sometimes incurable diseases have no different responsibility than those with HIV. HPV can have more deadly consequences than HIV, causing cervical cancer, and the throat cancer that actor Michael Douglas has. Yet no one believes that people transmitting or exposing others to HPV should go to prison for decades when they don't disclose. The difference is persistent phobia about HIV and the communities people associate with HIV.
Mayo Schreiber, a criminal defense lawyer at CHLP, stated:
o "If you accept the prosecution's analogy of Mr. Johnson's conduct to drunk driving, you should know that under Missouri law, driving drunk is a class B misdemeanor. First offenders, if convicted, face a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and most people get far less on an initial charge."
o "The punishment Michael Johnson faces is equivalent to a murder sentence. For drunk driving charges to earn a similar sentence there must be multiple dead bodies."
Dr. Wendy Armstrong, Professor of Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, Vice Chair of the HIV Medical Association and a member of CHLP's Positive Justice Project, has had her own patients charged and convicted under similar laws. She stated:
- "Failure to disclose, or outright lies, about one's sexually transmitted infections or sexual past is extremely common. People lie about having herpes, a spouse, a job, types of sex they feel are stigmatized, and a host of others things a sex partner might well prefer to know. Some of these lies are painful, some of them life-destroying. But the hang-them-high response seems to be reserved for discoveries of HIV non-disclosure and is based on misguided and outdated information about HIV and treatment."
- "HIV is no longer a death sentence. Like herpes, it is an incurable but treatable viral infection. With treatment, a person living with HIV will in all likelihood live a normal life span."
- "Ultimately, the most important lesson we can learn from this event is the critical need for education about HIV and the importance of including HIV prevention programs in communities across the country."
LaTrischa Miles, Founder of GRACE of Greater Kansas City, a Women's Faith-Based Organization and Co-Founder of Positive Women's Network - USA, stated:
o "The state of Missouri has spent lots of money to educate people about the importance of taking protective measures during sexual activity and getting tested for HIV. By prosecuting Michael Johnson and failing to update their laws the state is spending money in one way that undercuts public money spent to fight HIV."
Rose Farnan, RN, BSN, ACRN, Board member, Kansas City Chapter of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, stated:
- "It is understandable that most people believe that if you are living with HIV, you have a responsibility to tell your sex partners. But that does not automatically mean you should be treated as a dangerous felon when you don't disclose what in fact is a treatable disease."
- "It makes my job harder as a nurse to treat people with HIV or even to encourage testing if people know it may land them in prison."
The Center for HIV Law and Policy is a national legal and policy resource and strategy center working to reduce the impact of HIV on vulnerable and marginalized communities and to secure the human rights of people affected by HIV.
Press release from National Black Justice Coalition's ( NBJC )
Washington, DC May 15, 2015 The National Black Justice Coalition's ( NBJC ), the nation's leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ( LGBT ) people, stands in solidarity with Michael L. Johnson, a Black gay man who was found guilty by a St. Charles County, Missouri jury yesterday of one count of "recklessly infecting" a partner with HIV, and three counts of "recklessly exposing" partners to HIV. The verdict from a jury, comprised of 11 white jurors and one Black juror, came after only two hours of deliberation and after just three days of a trial. He now faces life in prison.
"I am deeply saddened, frustrated and angered by the guilty verdict and now subsequent sentencing of Michael Johnson in Missouri," said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, NBJC Executive Director & CEO. "Michael, a former state and national champion in wrestling on the collegiate level, represents so many of our young Black sons who are faced with a HIV diagnosis, while simultaneously living in a world that continues to perpetuate stigma and ignorance through irrational, baseless HIV criminalization laws. These horrific laws place the burden of disclosing ones HIV status solely on the shoulders of those who are living with this treatable condition. Yet we know that sexual relations between two consenting adults are not a one-way interaction."
Johnson was arrested and expelled from Lindenwood University in 2013 after being accused of failing to disclose his HIV status to six sexual partners. Under Missouri state law, all HIV positive individuals must disclose their status to their sexual partners, regardless of whether they practice safe sex or take medication that nearly eliminates their risk of transmitting the virus.
"As a proud Black gay man who is HIV positive, Michael's case touches me to my core and leaves with me a sense of helplessness. The way in which his story has been sensationalized by the media neglects the human toll we endure in order to feel safe enough to disclose our HIV status to others," said Isaiah Wilson, NBJC External Affairs Manager. "Michael testified that he did in fact disclose to his partners, but under this law it doesn't matter because the word of his accusers supersedes his. This is beyond offensive and all people of good will should be able to recognize the alarming problem with the enforcement of these discriminatory laws that disproportionately impact Black men."
The American Medical Association along with the Infectious Diseases Society of America has publicly condemned laws that criminalize HIV. Countless studies show that these laws are not effective in reducing HIV incidence.
Lettman-Hicks further added: "It must be noted that Missouri is one of 25 states that have yet to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would ensure that those living or at risk for HIV have the resources to receive healthcare to live their healthiest lives. NBJC is dedicated to using all of its strategic advocacy efforts to see that the health and wellness of Black LGBT people like Michael are priorities for lawmakers on all levels of government. The time for direct action on this issue is now because the lives of so many in our family depend on us all working together to see an end to this injustice."