BREAKING: Michael Johnson Has Been Set Free
After being unjustly sentenced to 30 years for HIV “exposure,” Michael Johnson walked out of prison a free man today — five years early.
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 as he left Boonville Correctional Center. “Leaving prison is such a great feeling.” who’s been covering the story for six years.
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.”
Michael Johnson, whose conviction for exposing others to HIV garnered international headlines and put US HIV laws under scrutiny, has been granted parole.
Michael Johnson, the collegiate wrestler also known as “Tiger Mandingo” who was originally sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for “recklessly” exposing others to HIV, has been granted parole, his lawyers told BuzzFeed News.
However, Johnson will remain incarcerated at Boonville Correctional Facility until Oct. 9, 2019 — almost six years after Johnson was arrested and put behind bars for “knowingly” exposing or transmitting HIV to six male partners.
Johnson, whose arrest made headlines as far away as Australia, is one of the most highly publicized targets of America’s controversial HIV laws, which make it a crime for people who have tested positive for HIV to have sex without first disclosing that they have the virus. BuzzFeed News has written extensively about Johnson’s arrest and trial over the last four years: He was originally sentenced to 30.5 years, but in 2016, a Missouri appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that prosecuting attorney Philip Groenweghe had failed to disclose evidence in a timely fashion to Johnson’s attorneys. In 2017, Johnson agreed to a 10-year no contest “Alford” plea deal rather than face another trial.
Many prosecutors defend HIV laws as offering just punishment for behavior that can help transmit the virus. But AIDS advocates contend the laws are harsh and outdated, given the tremendous medical advances in HIV care. Many epidemiologists and AIDS advocates say the laws — which single out HIV — can actually fuel the epidemic by making people afraid to get tested and treated, and by fostering the dangerous belief that only the person who has tested positive for HIV is responsible for preventing transmission of the virus.
When Johnson was arrested in 2013, he was a star wrestler at Lindenwood University, where he was also one of the only black students. His trial, held in the nearly all-white town of St. Charles, Missouri, featured a highly-charged combination of race and sex. Prosecutors asked would-be jurors if being gay was a “choice,” and evidence presented to the court included graphic descriptions of Johnson’s “huge” penis — and even images of it.
Last month, Johnson appeared before the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, where his friend, Meredith Rowan, attended as his delegate in the hearing. The board did not immediately respond to an email or phone call for comment, but Rowan said Johnson called her from prison today to tell her that his parole had been granted — with a delay.
“Michael was excited that it got approved,” Rowan told BuzzFeed News. “I have to look at it that I have a date, and it’s only 18 months away, and it’s still a lot sooner than a 30-year sentence,” Rowan said Johnson told her. If released as planned, Johnson will have served 60% of his 10-year sentence. The date is contingent upon Johnson not accruing any violations.
Johnson’s lawyers, Eric Selig and Jessica Hathaway, confirmed the terms of Johnson’s parole. ”We had some hopes, because of all the support Michael had received and a couple of other factors, that he would get out at an earlier date,” Selig said.
Johnson will live with Rowan and her family in Indiana when he is released, Rowan said. He will be supervised by parole officers for the duration of his 10-year sentence, until 2023.
Laws that single out HIV are widespread in the US. At least “67 laws explicitly focused on persons living with HIV had been enacted in 33 states” by 2011, according to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers from the US Department of Justice. In Missouri, where Johnson was convicted, people living with HIV can face life in prison for exposing others to HIV if they have sex without first disclosing that they have the virus.
Since Johnson’s arrest in 2013, the American Medical Association, the HIV Medicine Association, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, and others have criticized such laws as ineffective for combating AIDS. Researchers found “no association between HIV or AIDS diagnosis rates and criminal exposure laws across states over time, suggesting that these laws have had no detectable HIV prevention effect,” according to a study published last year in the journal AIDS.
In recent years, there have been significant changes in HIV laws in some states. In California last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill reducing HIV exposure from a felony to a misdemeanor. And in North Carolina earlier this year, activists successfully lobbied to change that state’s HIV laws to take into account contemporary HIV science, reflecting, for example, that people who are properly medicated cannot transmit the virus.
Published in BuzzFeedNews on April 9, 2018
Michael Johnson bypasses trial, enters no-contest plea and is sentenced to 10 years for not disclosing HIV status to male sexual partners
Original conviction overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct, but possibility of a nearly 100-year sentence under Missouri law led Johnson to accept plea deal
New York, NY, September 21, 2017 – Today, in conclusion to a prosecution short on fairness and riddled with questions about racism and homophobia, Michael Johnson entered a plea in the St. Charles County Circuit Court in Missouri. Earlier this year, a state appeals court vacated his original conviction due to prosecutorial misconduct that, according to the court, made Johnson’s first trial “fundamentally unfair.”
However, because Missouri’s HIV criminal law hinges liability on whether or not the defendant can prove he disclosed his HIV status prior to sex – a virtual impossibility in most instances – Johnson decided to accept a plea deal that credits him with time served. Under Missouri’s law, one of the harshest in the country, Johnson could have faced up to 96 years in prison if found guilty.
“It is disturbing that Michael is not yet a free man and was not exonerated after his years-long struggle for justice, but we respect and support his decision not to risk a life behind bars,” said Mayo Schreiber, Deputy Director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP). “It likely is the end of his case, but our work to bring an end to HIV criminal laws like Missouri’s continues.”
Johnson, who was 21-years-old at the beginning of this case, entered a no-contest plea to charges that he had sex with partners without first advising them of his HIV status. In exchange, he has accepted a sentence of 10 years in state prison, which will include time already served since his arrest nearly four years ago. He previously had been sentenced to 30 years in prison before the appeals court threw out the original conviction.
Prior to his arrest in 2013, Johnson was a promising young college student and star athlete. His prosecution has drawn condemnation from state and national organizations and individuals uniformly outraged by his conviction and opposed to these fundamentally unfair laws being used to prosecute people living with HIV and, disproportionately, like all other criminal laws in the United States, people of color.
“Johnson’s conviction has shattered a talented young man’s life,” says Charles Stephens, Executive Director of the Counter Narrative Project. “The sentence imposes punishment that is grossly out of proportion to the alleged harm.”
“These laws create a separate standard for PLHIV while actually placing their partners at risk,” said Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum, Executive Director of the HEAT Program at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, one of the nation’s largest clinics for young people living with HIV. “In intimate relationships, lots of HIV transmissions occur among people who do not even know they are living with HIV. Relying on what you think you know about a partner, or what they know or tell you, is a pretty sure way to eventually get some kind of STI, whether HIV, herpes or HPV.”
Rose Farnan of the Greater Kansas City Chapter Association of Nurses in AIDS Care notes “The law treats HIV as a death sentence rather than the treatable, manageable disease it has been for years. Unlike people diagnosed with cancer caused by the HPV virus, people living with HIV have a life expectancy approaching that of HIV negative people.”
“The law does not even require an intent to harm someone, unlike other felonies in Missouri,” according to Anthony Rothert, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Foundation. “There was no evidence at trial that Johnson intended or even thought of harming someone.”
- Rashaan Gilmore, Program Director of Blaqout, Kansas City, says “these laws have no effect on HIV diagnosis rates; they foster neither safer sex practices nor shared responsibility for sexual health. Black Missourians continue to bear a disproportionate burden of HIV.”
The laws do, however, increase HIV stigma. Ashley Quinn, staffing the MO HIV Justice Coalition, a project of Empower Missouri, notes “these laws promote negative characterizations of people living with HIV (PLHIV), by assigning fault and branding PLHIV as criminals, and exposing PLHIV to isolation and discrimination. As a result, these laws work at cross-purposes with efforts by Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services to stem the spread of HIV.”
Missouri’s criminal HIV exposure law, and similar laws in other states, are opposed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, Association of Nurses In AIDS Care, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and HIV Medicine Association, among many other organizations.
The Center for HIV Law and Policy is a national legal resource and strategy hub for HIV advocacy. CHLP hosts the only online resource bank focused on HIV law and policy in the United States, and supports the lawyers, legal services providers, and community advocates on whom people who experience HIV discrimination rely.
Published on September 21, 2017 in the Center for HIV Law and Policy website
Missouri Supreme Court Denies State’s Application for Transfer
Reversal of Michael Johnson Conviction Upheld
New York, NY, April 4, 2017 – The Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP), a national legal resource and advocacy center, announced today the Missouri Supreme Court denied the State’s application for transfer in Michael Johnson’s case. This upholds the December 20, 2016, decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals reversing his conviction and remanding the case for a new trial.
In its December 20 decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court based on the state’s failure to comply with Johnson’s discovery request, in violation of Rule 25.03, resulting in the untimely introduction of evidence that prevented Johnson from preparing a meaningful defense in the case. In the words of the Court, “the State’s violation of Rule 25.03 was knowing and intentional and was part of a trial-by-ambush strategy that this Court does not condone and that Rule 25.03 was specifically designed to avoid.”
Johnson’s new trial counsel, Eric Selig of Rosenblum Fry P.C., who will represent Johnson, stated that he “is looking forward to fighting for Michael to achieve justice in this case.”
CHLP’s Deputy Director Mayo Schreiber said, “We are very pleased that the Court of Appeals’ reversal has been upheld and are hopeful the St. Charles County Prosecutor will not pursue the case against Michael, given the Court’s finding that the State’s actions were ‘in bad faith’ and ‘inexcusable,’ and that Michael has already served three years imprisonment for the alleged activity.”
Michael Johnson, a young, gay Black man living with HIV, was sentenced to 30 years under Missouri’s antiquated HIV felony law. Members of the medical and legal community have joined HIV activists in expressing outrage at the 30-year sentence imposed on this college student and star wrestler following his conviction under the state law that makes it a felony for people diagnosed with HIV to have sexual contact without documenting they disclosed their HIV status.
In the appeal of his conviction before the Court of Appeals, CHLP and the law firm Gibbons, P.C. filed an amicus brief that addressed the “cruel and unusual punishment” of Johnson’s sentence and also argued that Missouri’s criminal HIV law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Constitutional protections against irrational treatment of disabilities such as HIV. Twenty-one national and state HIV, social justice and LGBT organizations joined this brief, which can be found here. Avram Frey and Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., and Mayo Schreiber and Catherine Hanssens of CHLP drafted the brief. Anthony Rothert, Legal Director, ACLU of Missouri Foundation, was local counsel for the amicus curiae organizations.
To read the Missouri Court of Appeals decision, State of Missouri v. Michael L. Johnson, Mo. Ct. of Appeals, E.D., No. ED 103217 (Dec. 20, 2016), click here.
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The Center for HIV Law and Policy is a national resource and advocacy organization working to advance the rights of people affected by HIV. We combine an online HIV Policy Resource Bank, a creative national advocacy agenda and case assistance focused on systems and institutions with significant impact on marginalized communities.
Published on March 7, 2017 on The Center for HIV Law and Policy website