Following Monday’s sentencing of college wrestler Michael Johnson to 30 1/2 years in prison for “recklessly infecting” a sexual partner with HIV, various experts have spoken out against the judge’s decision.
Johnson, 23, was arrested in 2013 after a one-time sex partner reported to the police that Johnson had infected him with HIV. Ultimately, more men joined in bringing charges against him.
On Monday, calling Johnson’s crimes “very severe,” St. Charles, Missouri County Circuit Judge Jon Cunningham sentenced the defendant to 30 1/2 years behind bars — allowing Johnson’s lesser charges to run concurrent with his 30-year sentence for felony conviction of recklessly transmitting HIV without disclosure.
Many are calling for reform of Missouri’s HIV laws that make it a felony for people diagnosed with HIV to have sexual relations without “documenting their disclosed HIV status.” The dissenting voices are not just coming from those who personally knew Johnson, but also medical professionals who say such laws do not help prevent the spread of HIV.
Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum, is an expert on HIV among adolescents, and founder/director of the Health and Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT). Birnbaum said:
HIV criminal laws have no positive impact on the spread of HIV. Sentencing people living with HIV to prison for having sex will, based on decades of HIV clinical experience, only drive people away from health centers where they can learn their HIV status and get the medical care they need.
LaTrischa Miles, a member of the Missouri AIDS Task Force, founder of GRACE of Greater Kansas City, and co-founder of Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), hits on the same point in a statement. Miles said:
The state of Missouri spends significant resources encouraging its citizens to be tested for HIV. The state then prosecutes people who test positive for HIV and are unable to prove that they disclosed this to their sexual partners. That just doesn’t make sense.
Mayo Schreiber is the Deputy Director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy and a long-time criminal defense attorney Said Shreiber:
The criminal statute that Michael Johnson was convicted of violating was originally passed in 1988, at a time when HIV was considered a ‘death sentence.’ Today, with proper treatment, HIV is a chronic, manageable disease and those with HIV can expect to live a full, healthy life. Yet violation of the Missouri law is a class A felony, with a sentencing range of 10-30 years or life imprisonment. Other class A felonies include murder or child abandonment resulting in death. Punishing Michael Johnson as if he is a murderer because state officials have failed to address a severely outdated, irrational criminal law is not only fundamentally unfair, it is barbaric.