Via Buzzfeed: Michael Johnson, who was sentenced to an unprecedented 30 and a half years for failing to disclose his HIV status to his sexual partners, was released today, 25 years early, after an appeals court condemned his original trial as “fundamentally unfair.”
“I feel great,” Johnson said with a big smile as he left Boonville Correctional Center on Tuesday, sweating in the intense Missouri summer heat. “Leaving prison is such a great feeling.”
Handed a cell phone to call his parole officer, Johnson looked at it and said, “When you get arrested and have your phone taken away, you have dreams when you think your phone is ringing.”
Johnson, a onetime college wrestler who was known online as “Tiger Mandingo,” was arrested in October 2013 for “recklessly” transmitting HIV to two men and exposing four others to it. Johnson is black and four of the six men were white. As chronicled in a BuzzFeed News investigation, his trial was racially charged, and jurors were shown images of his penis. Despite an absence of genetic fingerprinting to connect him to the other men’s HIV strains, he was convicted of one of the two transmission cases and of all four exposure cases. The resulting sentence was longer than the state average for second-degree murder — though he is not accused of killing anyone.
n December 2016, the Eastern District Court of Appeals of Missouri 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 and was later granted a suspended parole.
Since his arrest in 2013, Johnson’s story has become a flashpoint in the debates about laws that criminalize HIV transmission. That year, medical scholars wrote that “empirical studies on the impact of these laws suggest that they do not decrease HIV infections or have any other positive public health impacts,” and that anti-HIV laws may actually result in higher rates of transmission.
In the subsequent six years, the evidence on these points has grown — and the politics of HIV have shifted substantially toward an understanding of the role that race plays, in both who contracts HIV and who is prosecuted for transmitting it.
In 2016, 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 America would become HIV positive in their lifetime — despite having “fewer partners and lower rates of recreational drug use than other gay men.” Globally, a disproportionate number of the roughly 1 million people a year who die of AIDS are black.
Told that the prosecuting attorney who handled his case is now lobbying to update Missouri’s HIV laws, Johnson said, “maybe my trial did happen in some way to motivate some change.”