The jury in the Michael L. Johnson case recommended a 30-year sentence for the most serious charge against the former Lindenwood University student and college wrestler who was convicted of exposing another man to HIV, however combined with sentences for lesser charges, Johnson could spend up to 60 years in prison, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
A judge will impose the sentence based on jury recommendations on July 13.
The trial drew national attention, especially from HIV and LGBT rights advocates who stated that criminalization of HIV decreases the number of people willing to get an HIV test. Prosecution for "knowingly infecting" a partner is based on whether the defendant knew at the time they were positive. By criminalizing it, according to critics, states scare off individuals who may have HIV from getting tested for fear of prosecution later.
“This is a public health issue – not a criminal issue,” Andrea Sears, communications consultant for the Center for HIV Law & Policy in New York told the St Louis American before the trial began. “Any sexually-active person living with HIV living in Missouri could be in Johnson’s position — in jail, his life completely derailed if not destroyed.”
Under Missouri law, an HIV positive person can be convicted of a felony for not telling their status to partners even if their viral load is undetectable, they wear a condom, and have less than 1 percent chance of passing HIV along to partners. However, proving consent is difficult, as partners typically use verbal negotiation and there are no records of what was said.
Assistant Prosecutor Phil Groenweghe told the jury during closing arguments that not only had Johnson lied about his status when his partners asked, but that he also manipulated them into having sex without using condoms.
Defense attorney Heather Donovan argued that were inconsistencies between what Johnson’s sex partners said on the stand and what they told police. In addition, Johnson testified that he did tell his partners his status.
The jury found the 23-year-old guilty on five felony counts, one count of exposing a man to HIV and four counts of "attempting to expose" four others to HIV. Two of Johnson’s partners contracted HIV, though experts argued there was no proof that Johnson was the source of their HIV.
During testimony in the sentencing phase, St Charles Police Detective Donald Strapp claimed that there were dozens more who claimed they had had sex with Johnson, who did not wish to come forward because they did not want to be publically outed.
Numerous legal experts and HIV advocates decried the harsh judgment. Mayo Schreiber, a criminal defense lawyer at The Center for HIV Law and Policy, argued, “If you accept the prosecution’s analogy of Mr. Johnson’s conduct to drunk driving, you should know that under Missouri law, driving drunk is a class B misdemeanor. First offenders, if convicted, face a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and most people get far less on an initial charge. The punishment Michael Johnson faces is equivalent to a murder sentence. For drunk driving charges to earn a similar sentence there must be multiple dead bodies.”