US: Media, police, judge conspire in ‘hate crime’ against gay HIV-positive man in biting case

I am so mad I could spit and bite! I’ve seen a lot of bad reporting and bad legal decisions during my time blogging, but never before have I seen the media conspire with the criminal justice system in such a calculated, prejudiced, stigmatising, and ultimately harmful way.

A gay man from a small city in Michigan who has been harrassed and beaten up by neighbours for years, has been charged with “assault with intent to maim, assault with intent to commit great bodily harm and possession or use of a harmful device” after the latest assault resulted in biting his neighbour the lip whilst he was defending himself.

The story first appeared on October 30th in the Detroit News.

Although police allege [the accused] was the lone attacker — biting neighbor Winfred Fernandis Jr., 28, on the lip following the Oct. 18 confrontation — [the acccused] says he’s long been the target of bigotry on his street, and Fernandis, along with several of Fernandis’ family members, took turns beating him.

“I have no memory of biting him,” said [the accused], who is due in 41-B District Court for a preliminary hearing Monday. He divulged his HIV status after questioning from the media. “This person has been threatening me for years. The hatred needs to stop.”

“He divulged his HIV status after questioning from the media.”

How did that happen? Well, Fox News did some ‘investigating’ and discovered he was HIV-positive. They asked him to confirm it on camera – he did. They then told the bitten neighbour on camera. That’s when it got ugly.

Here’s the Fox News report.

Since HIV is involved, Clinton Township District Court Judge Linda Davis said during a preliminary hearing on November 2nd that just knowing he was HIV-positive and biting the neighbour is enough to sustain these very serious charges, reports a second story in the Detroit News.

“He knew he was HIV-positive, and he bit the guy,” Davis said. “That on its own shows intent.”

No it doesn’t, Judge Davis, because saliva from a bite does not expose someone to HIV. Now she is implicated, along with the police and the complainant (and his wife), in a hate crime.

“I am still maintaining my client is the victim of a hate crime,” [the man’s attorney, James L. Galen Jr.] said. “He will be exonerated. This is the very first battle in what I think is going to be a long war.”

A pretrial and arraignment will take place on November 16th.

US: Arkansas man accused of HIV exposure not HIV-positive despite confession

A 41 year-old man in El Dorado, Arkansas, appears to have admitted under police questioning that he was HIV-positive after being arrrested in September for allegedly having unprotected without disclosing his HIV status.

However, a brief report from the police log of the El Dorado News-Times notes that the man was, in fact, HIV-negative, something he’d maintained during his arrest.

One can only wonder what went on during his time being questioned by police that could have made this man confess to something that wasn’t true, and why he was arrested in the first place.

Charges will not be filed against an El Dorado man who was arrested on Sept. 17 for knowingly/willfully exposing another person to HIV. Police said an investigation determined that [name of accused] 41, does not have HIV. According to an affidavit for warrant of arrest, [he] initially told officers he was not HIV-infected, but upon further questioning, he said he had the virus. Police said testing and a review of [his] medical records led to the charge being dropped.

US: Padieu case gets the 20/20 treatment; phylogenetic analysis totally misrepresented

The case of Philippe Padieu, the French-born Texan found guilty in May 2009 on six counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 45 years for five counts and 25 years for the remaining count – all of which run concurrently – was featured last Friday night on US ABC TV’s tabloid-style news magazine, 20/20.

Five and half million viewers watched as Mr Padieu faced trial by media yet again. All six parts of the one hour show (actually 39 minutes minus commercials) are available to watch online.

Part 1: Women recall HIV criminal’s allure
Part 2: HIV diagnosis rocks women’s lives
Part 3: Women take matters into own hands
Part 4: HIV serial dater faces victims in court
Part 5: Man convicted of HIV crime speaks
Part 6: Women want case known to protect others

It’s basically sold as the story of a group of scorned women uniting to put Mr Padieu behind bars, summarised beautifully by the accompanying story on the ABC news website headlined, ‘How Women United to Stop HIV-Positive Man, Women’s Horror at Diagnosis Replaced With Mission: Stop Man From Infecting Others.’

There’s so much I could say about the show, which is something of a milestone in criminal HIV transmission reporting in the mainstream media, but I’m going to limit my comments about the very worrying misrepresentation of phylogenetic analysis as ‘proof’ that Mr Padieu was the source of all the women’s HIV infection. Perhaps blog readers could fill in the comments sections with insights and criticisms of their own about this programme.

[Update: Catherine Hanssens of The Center for HIV Law and Policy has some terrific comments and insights in her Sept 29th blog post.]

In Part 4 of the show, presenter/journalist Elizbeth Vargas says that it was Mr Padieu’s “own DNA” that proved he was guilty. But phylogenetic analysis is all about testing the genetics of HIV, not the individual. They then showed one of the US’s foremost experts in HIV forensics, Dr Michael L Metzker, of Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, who testified for the prosecution that Mr Padieu’s virus was extremely similar to that of the six women. Except here he says definitively that Mr Padieu was “the source” of the six women’s HIV. I’ve written about the limitations of phylogenetic analysis many times: the issues are summarised here.

In the final part of the show, we are introduced to ‘Lisa’ who dated Mr Padieu in 1997, and was diagnosed HIV-positive that same year. The show gives Dr Metzker a sample of Lisa’s blood and he says that “preliminary analysis” suggests that Mr Padieu was the source of all seven women’s HIV infection. The show concludes that Mr Padieu “gave Lisa HIV in 1997” and goes on to suggest, without a shred of evidence, that he had been diagnosed earlier than 2005 and knowingly infected Lisa and possibly hundreds of other women.

I’m extremely disappointed in Dr Metzker for totally misrepresenting what phlyogenetic analysis can prove. It is impossible to conclude, given the many limitations of phylogenetic analysis, that Mr Padieu infected Lisa in 1997. It is, in fact, just as possible that Lisa infected Mr Padieu.

I don’t expect 20/20 to explain the science (in fact, I expect them to get it wrong), but I do expect Dr Metzker, who is (was?) considered to be a respected scientist, to be less definitive about his conclusions. Maybe Dr Metzker would like to explain how he could be so sure – it would be very helpful to know if he has developed new, as yet unknown, techniques in phylogenetic analysis that can definitively pinpoint timing and direction of transmission.

US: Georgia judge branded ‘too lenient’ after 18 month sentence for cop biter

An Atlanta judge who sentenced an HIV-positive man to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated assault and battery for biting a policeman has been branded too lenient.

The assistant district attorney had recommended a “more appropriate” 15 years because during the bite the man told the cop, “I have AIDS…you are going to die”.

In a long analytical article that appeared in last week’s Atlanta Sunday Paper, not once is there any mention of the lack of possiblity that HIV could have been transmitted during the bite. Instead, the article takes it for granted that the biter’s words were a literal and real threat – as real as a shooting or stabbing.

Tom Clegg, a former DeKalb County assistant district attorney who [previously] prosecuted [the HIV-positive man], who is deaf, [said of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin] Arrington’s sentence… “I think it is very lenient, especially in light of [the] comment, ‘You are going to die.’ Whether he succeeded in infecting him or not, 18 months in jail is a gift.” Clegg says the assistant district attorney’s recommendation of 15 years with six to serve was more appropriate. “What if he had shot the cop? What if he had stabbed the cop? Frankly, I think most police officers would rather be shot than to have to suffer having a terminal illness,” he says. “The sentence is extraordinarily lenient.”

As is typical of these cases, the article also focuses on the pain, worry and anti-HIV drug side-effects that Officer Andrew Fincher suffered following the bite.

During the past year, Fincher, who tests negative for the disease, has endured a harsh HIV drug regimen, which Grady Hospital’s Dr. Jeffrey Salomone says was administered as a precaution. While Fincher suffered through drug side effects including nausea, diarrhea and extreme fatigue, always worried that the next test would show he had HIV, he willed himself to look forward to the day when the offender, [man’s name], 42, would be sentenced to a long stay in jail.

However, Judge Arrington, despite another article in the same paper claiming he is far too liberal to serve as a judge, did not reduce the sentencing due to his understanding of the reality of the miniscule risks of HIV transmission in this case. Neither was it because he appreciated the fact that in moments of stress and fear, people with HIV sometimes feel they have to use the stigma of HIV as a weapon to defend themselves, even whilst knowing that HIV itself is no more effective than a water pistol when used as an actual weapon.

Rather, in an email to the paper, the judge defends the 18 month sentence by claiming that no credible evidence was presented about the HIV-related aspect of the case.

“The State reported that when the defendant bit the officer, the defendant screamed something to the effect that he had full-blown AIDS and the officer was going to die (the transcript is not yet prepared so this is a mere approximation). Defense counsel cast doubt on that statement because there is no mention of any such statement in the police report or any of the discovery packet. A statement of that magnitude, defense argued, would have surely been included,” says Arrington via e-mail.

So, Judge Arrington ignored that fact that the man had HIV and sentenced him as he would have an HIV-negative cop-biter.

That, I believe, is ultimately fair; and that kind of equal treatment (regardless of the reasons for it) is what I ask of courts and judges everywhere.

Update: October 4th. Judge Arrington has written a two page letter responding to the paper’s criticism, which has been rebuked by the editor.

US: Miami man gets 15 years in prison for biting cop

A 35 year-old man with mental health issues, and characterised as a “drifter”, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison “for threatening to kill with his illness then biting a Miami cop.”

If this case doesn’t exemplify HIV-related ignorance and stigma amongst law enforcement and the judiciary, I don’t know what does.

According to the report from the Miami Herald, Johnson Jamerson

a former furniture delivery man who suffers from schizophrenia, was arrested in January 2008 for trespassing after he was found sleeping under the Interstate 395 bridge at North Miami Avenue. On a police bus later, Jamerson slipped out of his handcuffs. [Officer Matthew] Hall grappled with him. Wile struggling on the ground, Jamerson yelled out that he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, threatened to kill Hall and then sank his teeth into the officer’s right shin…He bit through Hall’s pants, drew blood and caused a permanent bruise.

Originally charged with attempted murder, a jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer in June.

Circuit Judge Daryl E. Trawick was told by Miami-Dade prosecutor Ankur Sevak that although Officer Hall was not infected,

doctors did not clear him for eight anxious months. “He could not have any contact with his wife or children for fear he could severely affect them.”

Obviously, the cop experienced a tremendous (and unnecessary – as you will see below) amout of mental and emotional suffering, reflected in the sentence, but how much of this suffering is Mr Jamerson’s fault?

As I have written in a previous blog post about the police overreacting to the risk of HIV transmission from a bite, the risk of transmission is so low that PEP is not really warranted – and it certainly has never been proven to reduce the risk of transmission in such cases. The fact that the cop was worried enough to take PEP is not Mr Jamerson’s fault.

In addition it should not have taken eight months from the incident for the cop to have been considered to be definitely HIV-negative – a viral load test (PCR testing) could have figured that out within a few weeks. Again, that is not Mr Jamerson’s fault.

And as for the cop not having “any contact” with his wife or children – surely he was counselled that he could not transmit HIV casually. But then, if he believes he can get HIV from a bite, I guess he probably thinks he could pass it on via sharing cutlery or a toilet seat, just like 5% and 4% respectively of the UK public surveyed in 2004.

Once again, that is not Mr Jamerson’s fault.

Then again, it seems Miami police doctors appear to give PEP for three-times longer than any study has ever found it to be necessary.

“For three months afterward, I had to take a cocktail of medication three times a day, causing diarrhea, vomiting, nausea — everything you can think of,” Hall, a Coconut Grove patrolman, said after the sentencing.

What is strange is that, if he is telling the truth about his experience of PEP, he appeared to be following guidelines to take drugs that are way out-of-date: no HIV regimen needs to be taken three times day.

However, it seems that the US Centers for Disease Control’s PEP guidelines were last updated in 2005 and the currently recommended PEP regimen for basic 2-drug PEP is Combivir (AZT and 3TC in a single pill, taken twice a day) for 28 days.

Amazingly, the guidelines still include an option to take the drugs separately, and for AZT to be given three times a day. This is ridiculous and totally unnecessary. So, perhaps I can’t blame it all on the ignorance of the police and judiciary: the CDC need to update their PEP guidelines to prevent unncessary suffering. And by unnecessary suffering, I’m talking about Mr Jamerson as well as Officer Hall.

Ireland, UK, US: Spitting and biting cases highlight police ignorance

Whether its Fort Mill, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Rutland, Vermont; or Wimbledon in the UK, the police and media have been over-estimating the risk of HIV transmission from biting or spitting over the past two weeks with devastating consequences for all concerned.

South Carolina: Where biting is attempted murder
In Fort Mill, a man who bit his neighbour in a fight had his charges upgraded from simple assault to assault and battery with attempt to kill once police learned of the man’s HIV status, according to a report in The Herald.

Assault and battery with intent to kill is a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years upon conviction, Fort Mill Police Capt. Bryan Zachary said. “Upon review of the facts of the case,” Zachary said, the solicitor’s office “confirmed because of the malicious intent involved that the charge of assault and battery with intent to kill was warranted.

And yet, according to local TV station WSOC the bite did not break the skin.

London: Policeman’s unnecessary agony
There may be no attempted murder charges for biting under English law, but in Wimbledon, according to This is Local London, “a policeman bitten by an HIV-positive drug addict [during his arrest] faces an anxious wait to see whether he has contracted the virus.”

And during his wait he will, according to the report, “need at least seven months of anti-viral medication.” Yet Post Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV exposure lasts just 28 days and is not actually warranted for a bite.

Vermont: Where post-spit anxiety lasts a year
A policeman in Rutland faces totally unnecessary anxiety after being spit on by an HIV-positive man who had been trying to commit suicide.

The Times Argus reports:

A man diagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS is charged with a felony for spitting into the face of a Rutland police officer who must now undergo a year’s worth of testing to discover whether he was infected with HIV. […]

It was while doctors in the emergency room were treating [the man] that he allegedly cocked his head back and spit into the face, eyes and mouth of city police Sgt. David Schauwecker, who was trying to control [his] head, according to the affidavit. [The man], who was arrested more than a week later after his release from the hospital, has no prior criminal record.

But the charge he faces now is tantamount to a life-threatening assault, according to Rutland County Deputy State’s Attorney Kathryn Smith. “The nature of this offense is extremely concerning,” Smith said. “He knows he has a deadly disease and yet he exposed another human being to that disease. … This case before us is an actual act of violence.”

“Everything in my life is basically put on hold for a year,” said Schauwecker, who will be tested every three months to look for signs of HIV. “I went there that night trying to save someone and now I’m looking at a life sentence.”

Today, the Rutland Herald ran a letter from AIDS NGO, Vermont Cares, entitled ‘Clearing up HIV myths’. They wrote:

Enforcing the myth that HIV is spread through saliva… protects the health of no one. In fact, unfounded fears about HIV transmission and misunderstanding of risk can endanger people with HIV.

To be clear, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers no demonstrated cases of saliva ever transmitting HIV. Transmittable HIV is present in four bodily fluids only: blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

Having someone spit in your eye or mouth is definitely frightening and may transmit other pathogens from influenza to tuberculosis. However, HIV is a highly unlikely risk in this instance.

Enforcing fear and misinformation about HIV, and promoting the belief that HIV testing is a variable enough science to postpone relationships and life, would be a terrible consequence of this incident. HIV testing, by CDC recommendations, is nearly 100 percent accurate at six or even three months.

Florida: Where attempted spitting is now a felony
In late July, Jacksonville police charged a 29 year-old HIV-positive man with aggravated assault with intent to commit a felony after he attempted to spit on a police officer following his arrest for shoplifting.

The arresting officer said that on the drive to jail, [the man] started coughing and trying to spit on the officer from the back seat of the patrol car in an “effort to transmit his HIV disease.” The officer had to put a “spit mask” on [the man]’s face before taking him to jail.

The short piece on included the man’s name and photo. There are now seven pages of readers comments that range from the homo- and trans-phobic to pure HIV hatred. One reader even found and published the man’s previous (minor) criminal record. I genuinely fear for the man’s safety in- or out of jail.

Ireland: Judge concerned about police’s lack of education of HIV transmission risks of biting and spitting
The Irish Times reports that a High Court Judge, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, recently brought in a medical expert to testify over the risk faced by police of occupational exposure to HIV and other blood-borne diseases “as a result of the high number of Garda [Irish police] compensation claims involving fear of transmission of such diseases coming before the court.”

The judge awarded a policeman €8000 compensation after hearing testimony that “he had been “petrified” and suffered nightmares and sleeplessness after having been bitten during the arrest of a known drug user”.

Colm Bergin, a consultant in infectious diseases, told the court that in 10 years’ practice he had never come across a case of transmission of HIV or Hepatitis C through saliva.

The court also heard that:

  • the risk of contracting HIV or Hepatitis C from saliva can be as low as one in 100,000; and
  • that transmission of such diseases through contact with blood was also negligible.

[The judge] had expressed concern as to how well [police] were educated about risks to members contracting saliva and blood transmitted diseases through bites, spittle or needle stick injuries. “Such attacks are happening on a daily basis and there are huge numbers of compensation cases coming before the court,” the judge said. She has asked for reports on the risks involved and what is being done to reassure [police] injured in assaults as to the low level of risk.

Canada: Alberta judge, police believe that spitting transmits HIV

An Edmonton, Alberta man who claimed he was HIV-positive and then spat in the eye of a police officer has been sent to prison for five months for assaulting a peace officer, with the policeman’s fear of infection being an aggravating factor in sentencing. The man was later (mandatorily?) tested and found not to be HIV-positive.

According to the Edmonton Sun, Judge Michael Stevens-Guille requires some HIV transmission training like his Ontario counterpart Jon-Jo Douglas.

“Spitting is disgusting,” said Judge Michael Stevens-Guille, pointing out that, years ago, expectorating on someone was not considered to be worse than punching the person in the nose. However, as a result of the dangers of transmitting communicable diseases, it is now considered far more dangerous and there is a need to protect people like the police from such perils, said Stevens-Guille. The judge also noted it was aggravating that the police officer involved was “very frightened’ by the potential he might have contracted the HIV virus and had to go through the worry of waiting for blood test results.

I agree with Judge Stevens-Guille on just one point: spitting is disgusting. However, although being spat upon is unpleasant, and may be a symbolic assault, it is not a way to transmit HIV.

Read this fascinating blog entry from Sally’s Trove on what can be transmitted by spitting, and the history and legacy of US spitting laws.

US: New HIV as a ‘deadly weapon’ case in North Carolina (updated)

Another US jurisdiction has classified a person living with HIV as a walking deadly weapon. North Carolina police yesterday charged a 45 year-old HIV-positive man with “assault inflicting serious bodily injury and assault with a deadly weapon” after he resisted arrest in Durham.

According to a brief report in The News & Observer, the police report says that the man

knowing he is HIV-positive, twice tried to expose the officer to his blood, once by cutting the officer’s thumb and also by head-butting him and biting his ear.

This prompted one local citizen to write in the comments section

This was a vicious act. If the officer had escalated the continuum of force level to shooting and killing this person he wwould [sic] have been justified. We don’t know how this individual acquired HIV and that doesn’t matter in that a decent human being would not knowingly have exposed another to the disease.

Another wrote

BoldThis event should lead to a charge of attempted murder because that is what it is. This act by this infected man is willful and intentional. May God be with the officer and find him or her free and clear of this dreadful disease.

The man, who was also charged with “injury to real property and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle,” will appear in court on June 29th.

Update: June 23rd

The man actually appeared in court yesterday. The hearing was filmed by local TV station, News14.

It is now patently clear to me, from the details revealed, that the risk of HIV transmission from the acccused to the police officers was so slim as to be negligable.The facts are that he cut a police officer’s right thumb while he was bleeding (interestingly, it doesn’t say how he got to be bleeding) while that officer was trying to arrest him (and it doesn’t say that he intentionally did so). He also didn’t actually bite the other policeman’s ear, but only “tried to bite that officer’s ear”.

And yet, Judge William Marsh III tells the court

“If Mr. Perry is engaged in the behaviour described, knowing that he has a potentially fatal condition with the ability to infect others, I consider that a serious offence, and could very well have potential to be increased to something more serious.”

This still suggests that when someone who is HIV-positive resists arrest, they can be seen as being ‘deadly weapons’ in the absence of any real possibility of transmitting the virus. This surely is a prime example of HIV-related discrimination based on ignorance and stigma.

Canada: Hamilton woman pleads guilty to HIV exposure

A 28 year-old woman from the same Ontario town as Johnson Aziga yesterday pleaded guilty of one count of aggravated sexual assault for not disclosing her HIV status to a man she met for a one-night stand in 2007. She will be sentenced in August.

The case was reported today in The Toronto Star and highlights the real problems HIV-positive Canadians are facing due to the current oppressive, discriminatory – and ultimately harmful – legal obligation to disclose before sex. When the woman was arrested in March 2007, police held a press conference saying the woman posed “huge threat”. According to the CBC website on the day of the press conference:

Det. Joseph De Lottinville called [the woman] “a huge threat” to public safety, amid police fears that she deliberately slept [my italics] with a number of people without revealing that she had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Police allege that [she] has known of her HIV status since March 2003, but didn’t follow the legal requirement that people with HIV disclose the condition to sexual partners.

Officers said [she] is believed to have frequented several bars in the Greater Toronto Area, specifically in Hamilton, Brantford and Toronto, particularly in its downtown Entertainment District.

More than 10 men who allegedly had sexual contact with her are being interviewed by police.

This is phrased slightly differently on, published the same day:

The 26-year-old from Hamilton was arrested on Sunday and police are alerting the public of her case. They allege she deliberately withheld [my italics] her important health information in order to have sex with men she met in bars in and around the GTA.

Detectives say [the woman] frequented bars in Hamilton, Brantford and Toronto on a regular basis and had sex with men she met at those establishments. She was diagnosed with HIV four years ago.

[She] deliberately failed to tell [my italics] one Toronto man about her HIV-status, according to police, and allegedly did the same to other men in order to have sex with them, often unprotected. Authorities are urging anyone who’s had sex with her to seek medical attention immediately.

“From what we’ve learned, she will disclose it sometimes and she won’t disclose it on other times,” Det. Joseph De Lottenville said Thursday.

The use of ‘deliberate’ in these different ways is really interesting. The first allegation that she “deliberately slept with a number of people without revealing that she had HIV” suggests that she intended to infect these men. However the second allegations, that she “deliberately failed to tell” one man that she had a one-night stand with that she was HIV-positive, is purely about nondisclosure. The knee-jerk reaction of the police was to create the myth of a female ‘HIV predator’ when the reality was that she and another man agreed to have (or probably did not even discuss) unprotected sex, putting themselves equally at risk – she of infecting another to HIV, he of becoming infected with HIV. I assume the man had the capacity to protect himself. Did he really need to be specifically warned about the risks? Why, then, is he is not held responsible for putting himself at risk?

And so, even after police released the woman’s name and photo for their ‘fishing expedition’, and even after interviewing more than ten of her other past sexual partners, she was still only charged with one count of aggravated sexual assault for nondisclosure. How then was this woman “a huge threat”? Aren’t the ten or more men who slept with her without using condoms who will have gone on to sleep with others, much more of a threat?

Canada: Prosecutions having negative impact on disclosure; Edwin Cameron speaks out

In my news story for aidsmap earlier this week, I wrote:

Over the past week, the global movement against criminalisation of HIV transmission received its biggest boost since the International AIDS Conference in Mexico last July. In rallies and meetings in Australia, Canada and Sweden leading judges, lawyers and politicians joined with HIV-positive advocates and civil society organisations to condemn the criminal justice system’s current approach to HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission.

I’ve already posted more detailed information about the Australian meeting, one of the two events in Canada, and highlighted the situation in Sweden. Below I’m posting highlights from newspaper coverage of South Africa Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron’s speech in Toronto last Friday.

Update: The official text of Edwin Cameron’s address is now available from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network website. (Une version française est disponible ici). An audio recording, which captures both the passion of his delivery, and some off-the-cuff changes, is available in the same location. Video may also be made available at a later date.

The Toronto Star ran a major article headlined, Judge slams criminalization of HIV, which put forward, without critique, Mr Justice Cameron’s international policy arguments as to why Canada needs to think again about its nondisclosure law.

Canada’s relentless practice of invoking the criminal law against people with HIV and AIDS is only intensifying the stigma surrounding the conditions and contravenes United Nations guidelines, argues a judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, who is HIV-positive himself.

African countries that look to Canada as a world leader on human rights issues are getting the wrong message when it puts people with HIV/AIDS on trial for having unprotected sex, even when the virus has not been transmitted, Justice Edwin Cameron said yesterday.

“Canada’s wide approach to exposure offences is sending out a terribly retrograde message to other countries, especially on my own continent, in Africa,” said Cameron, who delivered the keynote speech last night to kick off a weekend symposium on HIV and human rights issues, hosted by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

With human immunodeficiency virus still steeped in so much stigma in Africa that many are afraid to be tested, Canada is not providing a good example of dealing rationally and justly with the epidemic, said Cameron, noting Canada is a “world leader” in targeting HIV-positive people for prosecution.


AIDS activists, Cameron said, must accept there may be instances in which criminal liability is justified, noting that one example might be the recent case in Hamilton of Johnson Aziga, convicted of first-degree murder for actively deceiving women about his HIV status and infecting them.

But Canada needs to rethink its sweeping use of the criminal law and question why it is singling out HIV-positive people for prosecution when the same Criminal Code powers are not being used against those who expose people to other potentially deadly conditions, he said.

“Let’s take, for example, the two recent health scares, swine flu and the highly, highly contagious forms of tuberculosis. We had a case where somebody got onto an aircraft with a highly transmissible form of tuberculosis, and no one ever suggested that person should be prosecuted.”

“Queer activist” Andrew Brett also wrote about Mr Justice Cameron’s speech on It’s becoming clear that the fallout of the Johnson Aziga verdict is hitting HIV-positive Canadians really hard. The few I’ve spoken with personally are feeling under attack. Mr Justice Cameron, himself HIV-positive, feels their pain. Brett writes:

Earlier this year, a court in Hamilton, Ontario became the first in the world to convict a man of murder for failing to disclose his HIV-positive status to his sexual partners, two of whom later died of AIDS. Since then, criminal prosecutions have increased and the degree of charges being laid has been elevated.In some cases, Toronto police have even issued “public safety alerts” with names and photographs of HIV-positive people who allegedly failed to disclose their status, asking their sexual partners to come forward. Cameron likened this practice to a proposal by a Swaziland parliamentarian to brand people with HIV/AIDS on the buttocks.

An article published on Tuesday in, entitled Attempted murder the new aggravated assault? eloquently highlights the impact this culture of fear is having in Toronto.

Rita Shahin, associate medical officer for Toronto Public Health, says that public health can be required by law to tell police if a particular individual has tested positive for HIV.

“When the police get a complaint in front of them then they will come to us with a search warrant and if we have a file on somebody then we have to produce it,” says Shahin.

However individuals who have been tested anonymously — through the Hassle Free Clinic’s anonymous HIV-testing program, for example — will not show up in public health’s records.

Although Shahin says public health hasn’t yet seen a decrease in the number of people getting tested as a result of the recent charges laid, “it’s definitely creating a lot of anxiety and especially for those people who are behaving responsibly it’s [a question of] how do they protect themselves? How do they prove that they’ve disclosed to someone?”

[Angel] Parks [coordinator of the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s Positive Youth Outreach programme] says she’s also hearing from people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs) who are afraid that they’ll be charged even though they’ve disclosed.

“With any other criminal charge it’s always relied upon for having forensic-type evidence and these cases seems to only be based on he-said, she-said scenarios,” says Parks.

“Now they’re are even more afraid of what the consequences will be when they do disclose… like what if things fall out in a relationship where disclosure has happened? What can they do to protect themselves to ensure they can provide a credible defence if such an incident did occur?”

Because public health also deals with complaints against individuals for nondisclosure this is a scenario Shahin has seen play out.

“That’s why we have to really investigate the complaint to sort out, is it true? Is there a basis to the complaint or is it a relationship that’s gone sour where somebody’s being vindictive?”

Both Parks and Shahin recommend the recently published HIV Disclosure: a Legal Guide for Gay Men in Ontario, produced by the HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic (Ontario).

“It is meant to target gay, bi and men who have sex with men,” says Parks, “but the information contained in it is applicable really to any person living with HIV…. They talk about how to protect yourself against malicious lies or attacks.”

It’s going to take some time before public opinion catches up with the idea that the Canadian criminal justice system’s approach to HIV nondisclosure is at best flawed, and at worst, severly and negatively impacting on the human rights of people living with HIV, as this comment from a Toronto Star reader (agreed with by 15 others, and disagreed with by only one) suggests:

The carrier should still be charged: If a person with HIV has unprotected sex with another person who doesn’t have HIV and doesn’t inform his or her sexual partner that he or she has HIV, that person should be charged. I think the same would apply to someone who has herpes and doesn’t inform his or her partner that he has it. Just because the unsuspecting sexual partner doesn’t get HIV from the carrier doesn’t mean that the carrier shouldn’t be charged. It would be like saying that if you go into a bank to rob it and you are carrying a gun but don’t use the gun, you shouldn’t be charged with bank robbery. That doesn’t make sense.

No, actually, its the gun analogy that makes no sense. Or is it the case that people with HIV are now thought of in Canada not just vectors of transmission but actually walking deadly weapons? It seems that when it comes to HIV-positive people, attitudes in ‘conservative’ Texas and ‘liberal’ Ontario are exactly the same.