A man who prosecutors say recklessly endangered other gay men by having sex with them and not revealing he was infected with the virus that causes AIDS is on trial in Missouri.
Gay rights activists and some legal reform groups say Michael L. Johnson's case highlights outdated laws. They say such laws in Missouri and more than 30 other states criminalize a medical condition and deter those at risk of infection from seeking help.
Johnson, 23, faces felony HIV exposure charges. Prosecutors accuse him of "recklessly infecting" two male sex partners with HIV and knowingly exposing four others over nearly 10 months after being diagnosed as HIV positive in January 2013. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial began with jury selection Monday in suburban St. Louis.
The encounters occurred in Johnson's dorm room and other campus housing at Lindenwood University, a private school in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles. Johnson, of Indianapolis, was a wrestler at Lindenwood.
Johnson's public defender did not respond to multiple interview requests, and a spokeswoman for St. Charles County prosecutor Tim Lohmar said he was unavailable to discuss the case before trial.
Johnson is charged with two counts of recklessly infecting another with HIV and four counts of recklessly risking infection of another with HIV. All of the charges are felonies.
Under Missouri law, Johnson faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of 30 years if convicted of the recklessly infecting another with HIV charges. The other four charges carry possible sentences of between five and 15 years.
Kimber Mallett, a Lindenwood graphics design instructor who has regularly visited Johnson in jail since his October 2013 arrest, said her former student rejected a plea bargain and "wants to fight" the charges.
"He doesn't think he did anything wrong," she said.
Court documents allege that Johnson told two of his sex partners that he was disease-free when asked, but in other cases the at-risk person apparently didn't inquire. According to a probable cause statement that outlines five of the six charges, Johnson didn't wear a condom while having either oral or anal sex. Missouri law adopted in 1997 explicitly excludes condom use as a defense.
In a written summary of the case, The Center for HIV Law and Policy in New York asserts that "treating Johnson's past sex partners ... as victims puts the government seal of approval on their avoidance of responsibility for personal decisions about their sex lives." It adds: "Having unprotected sex is poor judgment, not a criminal act."
"He certainly did not seduce these people," said Catherine Hanssens, executive director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy. "He was sought out as a sex partner."
Hanssens cited other examples of what she called "HIV criminalization," including the case of an Idaho man sentenced to 15 years in prison for having sex without disclosing his status and an HIV-positive Iowa man who received a 25-year sentence for the same offense.
The Center for HIV Law and Policy estimates that nearly 200 such cases have been prosecuted since 2008.
Johnson was a 2010 state high school wrestling champion in Indiana. Before Lindenwood University, he wrestled at Lincoln College in Illinois and was a junior college All-American and national champion while there.