The topic this Wednesday June 3, 2015 is HIV criminalization specifically the case of Michael Johnson.
Michael Johnson, a former wrestling champion from Lindenwood University, Missouri, has found himself at the center of a legal battle pertaining to his alleged sexual indiscretions. Johnson, who is also known by his online alter ego “Tiger Mandingo,” has been accused of knowingly spreading HIV to a number of sexual partners that he met on gay dating apps.
Following a 3 day trial, a jury needed just 3 hours of deliberations to find Johnson guilty of one count of recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, 1 count of attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV and 3 counts of recklessly exposing a partner to HIV. At sentencing on Friday the wrestling standout was given a total of 60 years imprisonment, though Johnson’s legal team plan to attempt to have the time served concurrently, which if successful would mean that Johnson would only serve 30 years in total.
For comparison, voluntary manslaughter is a class B felony in Missouri, and carries a maximum prison term of 15 years. To be clear: Michael Johnson will serve a longer sentence for recklessly infecting someone with a disease than he would if voluntarily killed someone. A judge will hand down Johnson’s final sentence in July.
On Jan. 7, 2013, Johnson signed a form from the state of Missouri, acknowledging that he had been diagnosed with HIV. From this date forward, any time he had sex with someone without disclosing his HIV status, he would have been committing a felony.
But his mother, Tracy Johnson, said, “No one told him, ‘Before you sign this legal document, you need to get counsel. This is a legal document, and if you go against this legal document, you can be incarcerated,’ and be given years in the penitentiary if he is dishonest about his medical situation.”
In January 2013, a white male college student in Missouri noticed a profile on a gay mobile hookup app for a black guy with ripped abs and a chiseled chest with the username “Tiger Mandingo.”
“I am more into white guys, but I like black guys,” the student told BuzzFeed. He connected with Tiger because he was “gorgeous, he had great legs, and he was well-endowed.”
The student at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles quickly recognized that in real life, Tiger Mandingo was also a student at his school: Michael Johnson, a recent transfer student on Lindenwood’s wrestling team. They hooked up later that month in Johnson’s dorm room, where, the student said, Johnson told him he was “clean.” He gave Johnson a blow job.
Johnson invited him to go out sometime, but the student got busy and “didn’t have time for that.” They didn’t hook up again until early October.
This time, they had anal sex without a condom. “I let him come in me,” the student said. He wanted bareback sex, he said, because Johnson was “huge,” “only my third black guy,” and — as he said Johnson told him yet again — “clean.”
The student said he has barebacked with multiple “friends and ex-boyfriends,” situations in which “we trusted each other. I mean, I don’t just let anybody do it.” Yet he also said he had bareback sex “with people I barely knew.” In those cases, he said, “I knew they were clean,” sometimes just “by looking at them.”
The student’s nonchalance changed when he described a call he got from Johnson a few days after their second hookup: “He calls me and he said, ‘I found out I have a disease.’ And I asked, ‘Is there a cure?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ And I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I got pissed. I had asked him several times, and he’d said he was clean, and I trusted him! And I got mad at him, and then he got mad at me for getting mad, and then he said, ‘I gotta go.’”
That same day, Oct. 10, Johnson was pulled out of his class and led away in handcuffs by the St. Charles police. He was later charged with one count of “recklessly infecting another with HIV” and four counts of “attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV,” felonies in the state of Missouri.
Consider this regarding Dylan King Lemons, whom Johnson was convicted of recklessly infecting with HIV: Johnson’s former partner, who testified that he went to police when he noticed that the HIV-positive Johnson was on gay hookup apps.
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.
Johnson was specifically charged on six counts: transmitting HIV to Lemons and to Charles Pfoutz through anal sex (both Class A felonies); one Class B felony for attempting to expose HIV to Montell Moore through anal sex without transmission; and three additional Class B felonies for exposing Christian Green, Filip Cukovic, and Andrew Tryon to HIV. Johnson was convicted on all counts, except the one involving Pfoutz, which was added by the prosecution just last month.