Michael Johnson, a.k.a. Tiger Mandingo, was found guilty Thursday in St. Charles, Missouri, on five counts pertaining to his HIV status: One count of recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, one count of attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV, and three counts of recklessly exposing partners to HIV.
Steven Thrasher, who wrote a long piece about the case(s) against Johnson last year, has done a fantastic, essential job covering the 23-year-old Johnson’s trial for Buzzfeed. He reports that Johnson was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison—perhaps 60, depending on whether he serves his sentences concurrently or consecutively. That will be determined by a judge in July.
Of Johnson’s conviction, Thrasher writes: “In the end, the prosecution was successful in framing the complicated case around a simple premise: Did Johnson disclose his status or not?” Six former sexual partners of Johnson’s testified that he did not disclose he was HIV positive, as is required by Missouri state law. Johnson testified that he had disclosed his status before having sex with his accusers.
Through Thrasher’s reporting, it’s clear that this was no mere he said/he said case. Details of Johnson’s three-day trial, as shared by Thrasher, are consistently infuriating. Take, for example:
Some of the prosecution’s testimony created a narrative around HIV’s dangers that was not based on contemporary medical science. For example, Dr. Otha Myles, a medical expert for the prosecution, described having HIV as a “terminal” disease, though it is very treatable and life expectancy with medication is quite normal. [Link added.]
Please take a minute to consider how HIV criminalization further stigmatizes individuals with HIV, at least making disclosure that much more difficult, if not less likely. Consider what the Center for HIV Law & Policy writes in its summary of its guide, Ending and Defending Against HIV Criminalization: State and Federal Laws and Prosecutions: “People are being imprisoned for decades, and in many cases have to register as sex offenders, as a consequence of exaggerated fears about HIV. Most of these cases involve consensual sex or conduct such as spitting and biting that has only a remote possibility of HIV exposure.” Consider that, generally speaking, it takes two people to decide on whether or not to use protection.
Lemons testified in court that he believed he contracted HIV from Johnson. He also said that after he confronted Johnson about being positive, and even though he believed Johnson had transmitted the virus to him, he and Johnson had consensual unprotected sex again.
Even if you want to ignore the implications of HIV criminalization, check out how the odds were stacked against Johnson in terms of receiving a fair trial from his peers:
Johnson’s case has been racially charged since news broke that the black college wrestler called himself “Tiger Mandingo.” St. Charles, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb where the trial was held, is 91% white. Only one of the twelve jurors was black, but two of Johnson’s accusers were black, while four were white.
Of 51 potential jurors, only 13 said they believed homosexuality was not a sin. The final jury was composed of both those who said it wasn’t and those who said it was.
According to Thrasher’s report, before Johnson’s sentencing, prosecutor Philip Groenweghe continued to perpetuate exaggerated fears regarding HIV. During a slide show of stills from more than 30 sex videos featuring Johnson that were found on his laptop, Detective Donald Stepp of the St. Charles Police, “said that each video showed a different unknown male either ‘receiving anal sex from Michael Johnson’ without a condom or engaging in other kinds of sexual activity.” Furthermore:
Groenweghe emphasized the risk of transmitting HIV even when the stills showed low-risk activities, such as giving oral sex, and sex acts that cannot transmit HIV, such as when one man in a video masturbated Johnson “without a condom.”
If people are dumb enough to admit out loud that they think homosexuality is a sin, what are the chances of them understanding the intricacies of HIV in 2015, including which sex acts are riskier than others and what it means to be undetectable with antiretroviral therapy? If they are presented that information, what are the chances of them believing it and unlearning what they think they know about AIDS?
More from Thrasher:
Groenweghe, with the final word, said this case was worse than the murder cases he’s tried, because a murder ended when “someone is hit by a bullet and died.” But HIV, Groenweghe argued, has “an agenda” to “make as many copies of itself as it possibly can.” In Johnson, the virus “could not have had a more accommodating host,” who had unprotected sex with “one young man after another.”
“And they were probably promiscuous,” Groenweghe continued, red-faced and loud. “You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”
Consider that there was a time in the not so distant past when Johnson was HIV negative. It’s highly unlikely that he intentionally contracted HIV himself. This isn’t to make excuses for a man that a half dozen men have publicly accused of withholding information about his HIV status, it’s to suggest that the division between aggressor and victim isn’t as clearcut as the outcome of this case suggests. Inquire about your potential casual partner’s HIV status, hear him out, and then protect yourself anyway.