Olympic equestrian Darren Chiacchia, a bronze medalist who suffered a terrible horse-jumping fall in 2008, is facing a June trial after being accused of exposing his former partner to H.I.V. multiple times without telling him of his condition.
Chiacchia, of Ocala, Florida, has pleaded not guilty, but now faces up to 30 years in prison under Florida law, according to a story first reported in the New York Times in January of this year after his arrest by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
His former male sexual partner filed a complaint, claiming he found medical records stating Chiacchia was positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and never told him. Chiacchia purportedly met the man on a gay dating site in February 2009 and they dated and had sex regularly until June of last year.
Chiacchia is known for helping the U.S. equestrian team win an Olympic bronze medal in 2004. He was preparing for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when his horse hit a jump and somersaulted, falling on Chiacchia. He was unconscious for nearly two weeks and on a ventilator, suffering a collapsed lung, brain injuries, and broken bones. The Times reported that it was during this time in the hospital that he found out he was HIV positive, one year before he met the man now accusing him. A year later, Chiacchia was back competing at advanced levels and won the Rocking Horse Spring Horse Trials on his way to renewed Olympic competition.
The Sheriff’s Office and prosecutors subpoenaed Chiacchia’s medical records, interviewed friends, and collected text and e-mail messages to investigate.
Chiacchia apparently, in one e-mail, told his ex-partner he kept his medical history a secret because he did not trust him. “I could not share with you and have you leave me with this information about me,” he allegedly wrote. The partner allegedly saved the conversation and turned it over to authorities.
According to Florida Statute 384.24, HIV-positive individuals must inform sexual partners of their health status. Failing to do so is a felony offense in Florida. Multiple offenses may be ruled first class felonies.
The relevant section of Florida Statute 384.24 reads as follows:
“It is unlawful for any person who has human immunodeficiency virus infection, when such person knows he or she is infected with this disease and when such person has been informed that he or she may communicate this disease to another person through sexual intercourse, to have sexual intercourse with any other person, unless such other person has been informed of the presence of the sexually transmissible disease and has consented to the sexual intercourse.”
Florida is one of at least 32 states nationwide that have criminal statutes specific to HIV, many of which date to the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, when fear of spreading the disease was at its peak. While the fear of spreading the disease has diminished, these laws remain on the books in many states, and prosecutors continue to enforce them. A recent survey by the Center for HIV Law and Policy documented at least 50 such cases nationwide since January 2008.
Although records show that at least 71 people have been arrested under Florida’s HIV law since it was enacted, Chiacchia is believed to be the first in his five-county region to be prosecuted under the law, said the assistant state attorney handling the case.