A man serving 30 years for not disclosing his HIV status to sexual partners has been released 25 years earlier.
Former college wrestler Michael ‘Tiger Mandingo’ Johnson left Boonville’s prison, Missouri, yesterday (9 July).
In 2013, Johnson was the protagonist of what many defined a racially charged trial. His case was also one of the most relevant in the ongoing discussion about the criminalization of HIV transmission.
‘I feel great,’ Johnson told BuzzFeed as he left Boonville Correctional Center.
‘Leaving prison is such a great feeling.’
Police arrested Johnson, a black man, for ‘recklessly’ transmitting HIV to two men and exposing four others to it. Four out of these six sexual partners are white men.
The jury found him guilty of one of the two transmission cases and of all four exposure cases.
Johnson was serving 30 years
What struck many was the way Johnson’s trial was handled, particularly the fact that jurors were reportedly shown images of the man’s penis.
Johnson ended up receiving a lengthier sentence than Missouri’s average for second-degree murder, 30.5 years.
In December 2016, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District overturned his conviction because prosecutors had waited until the last moment to disclose evidence.
To avoid another trial, Johnson took a no-contest Alford plea deal. He was later granted suspended parole.
Black men and HIV
Some argue that Johnson’s case proved that race plays a part in HIV transmission trials in the US.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published research projecting that if current trends continue, one in every two black men who have sex with men in the US would become HIV positive in their lifetimes. This would happen despite them having ‘fewer partners and lower rates of recreational drug use than other gay men’.
On a global level, a disproportionate number of the roughly 1 million people a year who die of AIDS are black.
HIV transmission law in Missouri
Current state law in Missouri punishes HIV-exposure by up to 15 years in prison, or as many as 30 years if HIV is transmitted.
A Republican bill tried to change the law by reducing punishment for knowingly transmitting HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor. If passed, the new law would have taken into account several factors. Among these, whether the accused used a condom or was taking medication.
The bill’s sponsors say they will try again to get it passed in the next legislative session.