Monday, May 18, 2015
The trial of Michael Johnson in Missouri has been watched by those living with HIV and their advocates. Johnson, 23, was charged with one count of recklessly infecting a person with HIV, one count of attempting to recklessly infecting a person with HIV and three counts of recklessly exposing partners to HIV. It is impossible to separate racism and homophobia from other motivations in the prosecution.
According to a statement issued by Aids United, Johnson is African American and his accusers are white. Only one of the 12 jurors was African American. The vast majority of jury pool members believed homosexuality is a sin. Half the jury pool believed that homosexuality is a choice.
Even more troubling were prosecution witnesses who called witnesses who referred to HIV as terminal. Thirty states have laws criminalizing exposure behavior. "Most states have not updated their laws to reflect our modern understanding of the effectiveness of today’s antiretroviral therapies and prevention strategies like consistent condom usage and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)" Some states have laws criminalizing spitting and scratching even though there is no evidence that either action is a method of infection.
Catherine Hansenns is Executive Director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy and has spoken extensively on the criminalization of HIV. In response to the verdict, which could carry a decades long sentence, she said: "Michael Johnson's conviction for exposing one of his sex partners to HIV and attempting to expose four others... reinforces public hysteria and misconceptions about HIV." Hansenns points out that those with human papilloma virus are not held to this criminal standard even though the virus is known cause cancers.
Dr. Wendy Armstrong of Emory University School of medicine noted that “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.”
Criminalization raises issues of autonomy. Absent an abusive relationship, each partner is determined to make his or her own choices around sex, including safe sex. American discomfort with sex as well as the refusal to accept science is implicated as well. But more concerning is that criminalization is punitive without regard to consequences. Fewer individuals are likely to be tested. Without knowledge, one cannot be criminally charged.