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Deal Spares Poz Wrestler From Decades in Prison

Michael Johnson

HIV criminalization laws make it legal to lock up HIV-positive people for failing to disclose one's status to a sexual partner, or supposedly "exposing" someone to HIV—often even in situations where transmission neither occurred nor was scientifically possible.

One of the most highly publicized cases in the last few years was that of Michael Johnson, a poz college wrestler who was previously sentenced to over 30 years in prison for one felony charge of “knowingly” transmitting HIV to one man and four charges of exposing four other men to the virus who didn’t contract it. 

Johnson was convicted in May 2015 in a St. Charles County, Mo. court. After the verdict, his lawyers chose to appeal, citing that prosecutors hadn’t disclosed evidence. The appeals court ultimately overturned his covniction and granted a new trial.  Prosecutors originally suggested they would take the case to another trial but this week Johnson won a plea deal that could potentially set him free within 18 months—and didn't require him to admit guilt. As BuzzFeed explains, in what is known as an Alford plea, a defendant “doesn’t admit guilt to a crime itself, but admits that there is enough evidence that they may be found guilty if their case goes to trial.” 

In addition, because the charges that he pled to fall under health statutes, Johnson will no longer be required to register as a sex offender in the state of Missouri or Indiana (his home state). 

Draconian laws like those under which Johnson was charged have been the bane of HIV-positive people since their inception. Passed during a time when AIDS was believed to be a “gay man’s disease" and a death sentence, these statues are wrenched with homophobia and stigma. But most of the states that enacted them still have them on the books. 

The men Johnson allegedly “exposed” to HIV were predominantly white, and given that St. Charles County is a mostly white suburb of St. Louis, his case has often been reported with subtextual racism: photos of his dark skin and shirtless photos were featured in news outlets.

Johnson’s lawyer’s opening words in the 2015 trial were apparently, “You have to consider my client guilty until proven otherwise.” The judge reportedly corrected the public defender by saying, "I believe you meant to say 'innocent.'"

Last December, the Eastern District Court of Appeals in Missouri overturned Johnson’s 30-year conviction due to the prosecutors failing to turn over recordings of Johnson’s calls from prison to defense attorneys until the morning of the first trial date. In the calls, Johnson can be heard discussing whether or not he disclosed his status to his partners. 

Johnson’s attorney, Eric Selig, predicted Johnson could be eligible for parole immediately because he has no prior offenses, however he likely wouldn’t be released for another six to 18 months, reports BuzzFeed. Before being escorted away, he turned to his family and friends in the courtroom to say: "I just want to say thank you all, I appreciate your being here, and I love you." 

One of the prosecutors, Philip Groenweghe, supposedly read the charges out loud when Johnson appeared in court this week, which included a description of Johnson ejaculating on the back of one of his sexual partners — as anyone with knowledge on HIV transmission knows, this kind of act is pretty much impossible to transmit the virus. 

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