When the criminal trial of the HIV-positive college wrestler Michael Johnson began, BuzzFeed reports reports, his lawyer immediately fumbled her words, advising the jury her client was “guilty until proven innocent.” It was an inauspicious start to a trial that seemed, in retrospect, to have been stacked against the defendant in every way possible.
Johnson, a 23-year-old who also went by the name Tiger Mandingo, was convicted last May under a Missouri law that makes it a crime for an HIV-positive person to have sex without first notifying their partner of their status.
Prosecutors say Johnson neglected to inform at least six partners, infecting two and exposing the other four to the virus. After a three-day trial, an almost all-white jury comprised entirely of straight people agreed, generally: Johnson was ultimately convicted on five counts related to his HIV-positive status. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and will have to register as a sex offender upon his release.
But the case was more nuanced than the lurid headlines allowed. As BuzzFeed’s Steven Thrasher points out, Johnson’s trial was stacked against him from the start.
In a new report published today on BuzzFeed, Thrasher outlines several of the issues surrounding Johnson’s conviction. While none may be enough to affect his sentence, it’s certainly a sobering look at small town justice doled out by a jury that was not quite exactly comprised of Johnson’s peers.
- Of 51 potential jurors only one appeared to be “non-white.”
- Half said they believed being gay was a choice.
- Two-thirds intimated that they believed being gay was a sin.
- All the jurors identified as straight and HIV-negative.
- All the jurors said they believed HIV-positive people who do not inform their partners of their status should be prosecuted.
- She “clutched her notes, the papers sometimes shaking,” declined to make eye contact “with anyone” and “often stammered and stumbled over her words.”
- She declined to acknowledge Johnson for most of the trial, “even neglecting to greet him most times he was led into court.”
- She “brought up prejudice and racism rarely” while weeding out potential jurors during voir dire.
- She started crying while questioning a medical expert and accused the prosecutor of personally attacking her before telling the judge, “You are going to need to have a new trial in a few minutes because I am going to be disqualified.” Then she apparently stormed out of the courtroom.
- And most damning of all, she seemed to allow Johnson’s accusers to contradict themselves on the stand without attempting to impeach them.
For example, one of Johnson’s sex partners, Dylan King-Lemons, told the court he’d been infected by Johnson. But the evidence, while suggestive, wasn’t conclusory: No scientific tests were ever performed to determine if Lemons’ strain of the virus matched Johnson’s. Nor was it clear that Johnson was Lemons’ only partner—via BuzzFeed:
In the police report, a woman described as Lemons’ “best friend,” who was questioned separately, told Detective Stepp she believed Lemons had been dating a third person, about “8.5-9 months prior” to Lemons getting sick. It could not be determined if this person was one of the five people the state public health officer said had tested negative. According to the police report, the friend said that both the other people Lemons had been seeing were “very promiscuous.”
But Donovan apparently never questioned Lemons about his other partners. Nor did she question him about his claim that his diagnosis had driven him into bankruptcy—despite the absence of a bankruptcy filing.
Which isn’t to say she missed every discrepancy—as Thrasher points out, she performed a particularly effective cross-examination against another victim who initially told medics he’d contracted the virus from someone else. And she pointed out many of the other witnesses’ contradictory statements in her closing arguments.
But it wouldn’t have mattered, even if she had discredited all six of Johnson’s former partners while they were on the stand: All that mattered was whether he informed them of his status before they had sex. Which goes to the biggest issue in the case—whether or not they asked had no legal bearing. The burden was on Johnson, whether his partners cared or not—and there’s some evidence to suggest at least one didn’t.
“Getting 30 years for exposing someone to HIV is just silly,” Johnson’s former partner Filip Cukovic tells BuzzFeed. “It would be better for him if he’d killed someone instead.”
He’s not exactly wrong.