A Missouri judge just sentenced former college wrestling champ Michael Johnson (pictured) to 30 years behind bars for “recklessly transmitting HIV” after a jury found him guilty of exposing multiple partners to the virus.
23-year-old Johnson tested positive for HIV in January 2013. At the time, he was a star wrestler at Lindenwood University. According to court records, he had unprotected sex with multiple men who he met on hookup apps between the time he tested positive and October 2013, when he was arrested. As a result, he was accused of infecting at least one man and exposing four others to the virus.
Under Missouri state law, it is illegal not to disclose your HIV status to a sexual partner. Johnson testified that he did inform his partners that he was HIV-positive, but prosectors argued otherwise, saying that he “was totally irresponsible and placed countless people at risk.” One of the victims went so far as to say that if Johnson was not locked away, “he will infect people for his own sick purposes. He has lost the privilege to be free!”
This week, Judge Jon Cunningham told Johnson that he had committed “very severe” crimes before handing down the 30 year sentence.
“The main thing is the profound effect your actions have had on the victims and their families,” he scolded.
Johnson’s attorney, Heather Donovan, pleaded with the judge for a lighter 10-year prison term for her client, saying that contracting HIV “is not a death sentence anymore,” but the judge was unmoved.
Johnson’s conviction once again raises questions about America’s HIV criminalization laws, which activists say ignore three decades of medical science, fail to actually reduce infection rates, and disproportionately punish black men. Both the American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America have publicly condemned laws criminalizing HIV.
“The sentence reflects the continuing ignorance and HIV and the unfortunate silence of state health officials who should be openly, publicly addressing it,” Catherine Hanssens, director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy, a legal resource center for people affected by HIV told Fusion.
The publication also points out that Johnson would have received a less severe punishment if he had killed someone in a drunk driving accident. In Missouri, killing someone while driving under the influence is considred a “Class C” felony, and jail time cannot exceed seven years.
In a brief statement, Johnson said: “I never want anyone to have to go through the pain” of having HIV.