30-Year Sentence Thrown Out: Court Orders New Trial for HIV-Positive Man Accused Under Outdated Criminal Law

Browse By

Blog Search

December 20, 2016

Today, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision and granted a new trial to Michael Johnson, an HIV-positive black gay man, who is currently serving 30 years in prison under an out-of-date law that criminalizes the sexual conduct of people living with HIV.

The court’s decision is based on the State’s failure to turn over until the very last minute conversations recorded at the county jail that were subsequently used against Mr. Johnson at trial. Earlier disclosure of these recorded conversations would have given Mr. Johnson’s lawyers time to prepare to counteract them or adjust trial strategy and could have affected the outcome of the case, the court held. The court remanded for a new trial.

Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, who worked with Johnson’s public defender to provide “behind the scenes” assistance in preparation for Mr. Johnson’s defense at trial, released the following statement:

Lambda Legal is elated with the outcome at the appellate level in Michael Johnson’s case, and the second chance it provides Michael. The real barrier to justice for Michael is the law itself—and we must energize efforts to change the laws and eliminate HIV-based prosecutions in the absence of the intent to harm.

Living with HIV is not a crime. Except in the most extreme cases, the criminal law is far too blunt an instrument to address the subtle dynamics of HIV disclosure. Willingness to be open about HIV status will be created only by the destigmatization of HIV and policies that ensure people living with HIV are not singled out for discrimination or special prohibitions and punishments. Prosecutions like this — under antiquated laws like Missouri’s — take us in the opposite direction.

Across the country, there are criminal laws just like this one in Missouri that unjustly target people living with HIV and disproportionately impact LGBT people and people of color, subjecting them to unwarranted prosecution and punishment. Lambda Legal will continue working to reform these laws to ensure that they are used only in the very rarest of circumstances — when a defendant has acted with the intent to harm and has engaged in conduct presenting a substantial risk of transmission.

Given the outdated nature and extremely punitive nature of Missouri’s law, Lambda Legal is hopeful the State will not appeal this decision, and will instead work to resolve the case without the need for another trial.

Read the press release.