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BREAKING: Michael Johnson Has Been Set Free

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In 2015, Michael Johnson (known online as “Tiger Mandingo”) was convicted 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.

This week, Johnson was set free after serving five years in prison — thanks to a prior plea deal.

"I feel great,” Johnson told BuzzFeed reporter Steven W. Thrasher, who's been writing about the case since it began, as he left Boonville Correctional Center. "Leaving prison is such a great feeling.”  

He added, "It’s good I had the support of everyone who wrote me letters. There are times when you get down, and it helps that people knew why I was fighting the system.” 

One of the most highly publicized HIV nondisclosure cases in the last few years, Johnson, a poz college wrestler, had been convicted and sentenced to 30 years in a St. Charles County, Mo. court. After the verdict, his lawyers chose to appeal, citing that prosecutors failed to turn over significant evidence.

The appeals court ultimately overturned his conviction and granted a new trial. 

Prosecutors originally suggested they would take the case to another trial, but Johnson won a plea deal that didn't require him to admit guilt. As BuzzFeed explained, 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.”

Furthermore, because the charges he pled to fell 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).  

Johnson is just one of many people living with HIV who've become victim to criminalization laws, which make it legal to lock up HIV-positive people for failing to disclose their status to a sexual partner, even in situations where transmission neither occurred nor was scientifically possible.

These draconian laws were passed during a time when AIDS was believed to be a "gay man’s disease" and a death sentence. The statutes are wrenched with homophobia and stigma, yet 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 treatment in court was also scrutinized. Johnson’s own lawyer opened the trial with: “You have to consider my client guilty until proven otherwise," before the judge reportedly corrected them by saying, "I believe you meant to say 'innocent.'"

Additionally, the trial blatantly ignored scientific facts.

One of the prosecutors, Philip Groenweghe, supposedly read the charges out loud when Johnson appeared in court, 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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