(HOST) Tanzina Vega: In 2013 Michael Johnson was a young black college wrestler in Missouri when he was arrested and charged with “recklessly transmitting HIV to two men and exposing four others.” Johnson's accusers, four of whom are white, claim that he had not disclosed that he was HIV positive before engaging in sexual contact.
Johnson was found guilty and given a 30 and a half year sentence longer than the state average for second degree murder. But in 2016, the Eastern district court of appeals of Missouri overturned his conviction and Johnson took a no-contest plea deal to avoid another trial and to be eligible for parole.
He was released on Tuesday, 25 years earlier than his first sentence. Johnson's case has reopened the debate about HIV criminalization laws, which exist in more than half the States in the United States.
Steven Thrasher is a professor of Northwestern and a contributor to Buzzfeed news and he's been following Johnson's story from the beginning and was with him when he was released on Tuesday. He joins us now. Thanks for being with us, Stephen.
Steven Thrasher: Thanks so much for having me.
Tanzina Vega: So, help us understand the charges and sentencing. I mean, how and why was Michael incarcerated and why was he given so much time?
Thrasher: So originally he was convicted under Missouri's AIDS law, which was written in 1988 before there weren’t any effective treatments for medication for AIDS. So at the time, HIV diagnosis was considered a death sentence and many states passed laws punitively saying, we're going to treat this -- basically -- akin to attempted murder. Public health people have always known that this was not a good idea, but it's particularly become a worse idea now that HIV is a much more manageable condition and not something that we need to think of as a death sentence. And so Michael had one person who came forward and accused him and said, “he transmitted HIV to me.” They didn't even try to prove it. They didn't do a genetic fingerprint on the strains of HIV to see if it matched. He was also charged with exposing other people to HIV. And these laws will treat exposure as something that can send someone to prison for life. Even in situations where exposure is unlikely or even impossible, such as if someone's using a condom or if they are medicated. Current medications actually make it statistically impossible for people to transmit the virus on.
Tanzina Vega: I want to ask a very basic question. I mean, doesn't this require proof of whether or not someone has disclosed their HIV status? And the question is, how do you get that proof? We're talking about sexual contact as an intimate moment between two people. How does someone prove whether or not their status was disclosed?
Thrasher: This is a really big problem with these laws that there's no way to prove this. And usually, the way that the charges come up is that someone will say, “my partner didn't tell me that they were HIV positive.” Now that's something that you can't really prove. We've certainly found out that this happens a lot in domestic violence situations. Somebody will break up or someone who's HIV positive will be in a relationship with someone who is not and then hold it over them and say, “if you break up with me or if you do X, Y or Z , I will report that you never told me.” But it's something that's really difficult to prove. One of the more absurd things that's happened is that people living with HIV have sometimes gotten to having their partners sign something. There's even an app now that people living with HIV will ask their partners to acknowledge that they have HIV. But the problem from a public health perspective is that this incentivizes people not to even know their status. Because if you don't know that you're HIV positive, then you can't be prosecuted. And so it's yet another hurdle and getting people to get tested and helping people get the treatment.
Tanzina Vega: As of 2018, 26 States in the United States have laws that criminalize HIV exposure. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control. How have these laws been used in courts? I mean, are there certain populations that are more likely to be prosecuted for violating these HIV laws?
Thrasher: Yeah we've seen in all the places that it's been studied that it's difficult to find it in different states, but it consistently affects black and brown men -- the most matching other forms of overcriminalization of these populations. It's come up with people who are sex workers. It's come up a lot with people who are homeless. And one thing that I know from my research into queer life is that homeless teens and homeless queer people might be involved in informal sex work or things of that nature. And so they end up being overpoliced and are more likely to be charged under these laws. But ironically and tragically, being homeless is also something that makes you more likely to become HIV positive in the first place. Another really scary way that these laws are being used is that some states are attempting to put them into a “blue lives matter” wave. And so it's become that if a police officer in some places have arrested you and you're HIV positive, and if the police officer makes you bleed, bashes your head into their car or onto the sidewalk and you start bleeding and you haven't disclosed to the police officer before that happens -- that you could now be charged with the attempted murder of that police officer. So it's a really scary and absurd law that doesn't have any benefit for public health applications.
Tanzina Vega: You mentioned in the case of Missouri, this is a law that was on the books in 1988. We've come a very, very, very long way from 1988 to today in terms of progress with HIV and managing this. What impact of medications like PrEP, for example, had on these laws, if any?
Thrasher: So, PrEP is a drug that you can take every day to prevent becoming HIV positive if you already are not living with HIV. It's actually a modification of a drug that people take who are already living with HIV. And the great thing about this drug is it stops people who are living with HIV -- if they're taking it -- they can't transmit it on. So white people at a much larger rate got the drug in the first place and that drove down the rates. PrEP is something that can also help protect the whole community if enough people are taking it. And sort of my problem with PrEP is that the same people who are not getting traditional HIV medication are not getting this drug either. We really need a robust national public health approach to getting treatment to the people who need it and not just treatment.
People living with HIV are disproportionately poor homeless, don't have good work, are incarcerated. If you're any of those things and you get medication, it doesn't help you very much if you don't have a home and a job and a place to go home.
Tanzina Vega: A little less than a minute to go. I just want to ask you whether or not there are broader efforts to get these laws off the books and was Michael's case being overturned and unusual?
Thrasher: There are great efforts going underway. California and North Carolina have successfully changed their laws in the past couple of years. There are attempts in Missouri right now, and even the very prosecuting attorney who prosecuted Michael Johnson is lobbying for the reform of these laws, saying that they need to reflect current science and that they should probably move from a felony to a misdemeanor. And then there are also people saying that none of this should be criminalized at all because it just creates more stigma. It doesn't help. What people living with HIV need is support and treatment. They don't need to be incarcerated -- and that will help the public health overall.
Tanzina Vega: Stephen Thrasher is a professor at Northwestern University and a contributor to Buzzfeed news. Steven, thanks so much.
Thrasher: Thanks so much for having me.