After an extended legal battle that has included a thrown out trial, Michael Johnson, the HIV-positive Missouri wrestler known as “Tiger Mandingo,” has pled guilty to HIV exposure and accepted 10 years in prison as a sentence, according to the Center for HIV Law & Policy. He has already served four of his years.
According to journalist Steven Thrasher and local college newspaper the Linden Link, Johnson entered an “Alford plea,” which is a guilty plea that maintains the defendant’s innocence. Under Missouri law, one of the harshest laws against HIV-positive people in the country, Johnson faced up to 96 years in prison if found guilty.
“It is disturbing that Michael is not yet a free man and was not exonerated after his years-long struggle for justice, but we respect and support his decision not to risk a life behind bars,” said Mayo Schreiber, Deputy Director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP). “It likely is the end of his case, but our work to bring an end to HIV criminal laws like Missouri’s continues.”
In December, the courts threw out Johnson’s original conviction due to “fundamental unfairness” in the trial proceedings. At the time, Missouri court documents showed that prosecutors withheld evidence. In April, a higher court upheld that decision and Johnson was to get a new trial.
Johnson was arrested in 2013 while he was a college student. His case garnered national headlines and brought increasing scrutiny to HIV criminalization laws, laws that prosecute HIV-positive people’s sexuality.
“Johnson’s conviction has shattered a talented young man’s life,” Charles Stephens, Executive Director of the Counter Narrative Project, told the Center for HIV Law and Policy. “The sentence imposes punishment that is grossly out of proportion to the alleged harm.”
Unlike with other felony charges, according to Anthony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Foundation, HIV criminalization laws do not require intent to harm to get a conviction.
“There was no evidence at trial that Johnson intended or even thought of harming someone,” Rothert said.
In 2014, the Department of Justice released a new guidance asking that states reform their HIV criminalization statutes, saying they’re antiquated and not based on current understandings of HIV transmission.
According to the Center for HIV Law & Policy, several bodies aside from the US DOJ have come out against HIV criminalization laws, including the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, Association of Nurses In AIDS Care, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and HIV Medicine Association.