Last May, Michael Johnson, a 23-year-old, black, HIV-positive former college wrestler, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “recklessly infecting” two sex partners and exposing four others to the virus.
Now, however, the Missouri Court of Appeals has overturned Johnson’s conviction and demanded a new trial after it determined that the prosecution in the case had knowingly withheld evidence in order to “gain a strategic advantage” over Johnson’s defense.
The evidence consists of recordings of phone calls that Johnson made while being held in jail.
“In his first point on appeal, Johnson contends that the trial court erred by admitting the excerpted recordings of phone calls Johnson made while in jail that the State did not disclose to the defense until the morning of the first day of the trial,” court documents read. “Johnson argues that the State’s disclosure of the recordings was untimely under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 25.03 and rendered his trial fundamentally unfair. We agree.”
During his initial trial Johnson pled not guilty to the four felonies he was facing and insisted that he’d informed all of his sexual partners of his HIV status before they agreed to have unprotected sex with him. Six partners of his—including two who claimed that he had infected them with HIV—denied this, though, as BuzzFeed noted, their testimony was somewhat contradictory. Because Missouri is a state in which not informing someone about your HIV status can lead to a felony offense, Johnson faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Soon after his sentencing, nearly 100 openly gay, black public health advocates, medical professionals and queer rights activists wrote an open letter to Johnson expressing their belief that Johnson’s race factored into the predominantly white jury’s decision.
“HIV criminalization laws unfairly impact Black people and stigmatize people living with HIV,” the letter read. “HIV criminalization laws push people living with HIV further and further away from HIV treatment and care and make HIV prevention efforts more difficult. As Black gay men, we are deeply impacted by HIV; and these laws harm us and damage our relationships and communities.”