Ex-Lindenwood wrestler gets 10 years in HIV transmission case after plea deal

by Erin Heffernan – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The case of a former Lindenwood University wrestler charged with infecting a sex partner with HIV was resolved with a plea deal Thursday after four years.

The case at times drew national media attention because of controversy over the laws and punishments for exposing others to HIV.

Michael L. Johnson, 25, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Thursday for five counts related to spreading or exposing others to HIV.

The former wrestler was originally sentenced to 30 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of the same counts in May 2015. That conviction was overturned by an appeals court last year.

Johnson’s case attracted national news coverage including stories in the Washington Post and Buzzfeed after some LGBT rights advocates and legal reform groups argued HIV criminalization is outdated, in part because of advances in treatment for the disease.

After Johnson was sentenced to 30 years, many advocates and academics spoke out.

“The social stigma of being black, gay and HIV-positive was furthered in a courtroom where Judge (Jon) Cunningham adjudicates through the frame of 1987 laws that respond largely to public panic rather than grounded science,” wrote Jeffrey McCune Jr., a Washington University gender and African-American studies professor, in an op-ed in the Post-Dispatch.

St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar denies that the prosecution of the case was motivated by Johnson’s race or sexual orientation, arguing that Johnson denied the victims the right to make an informed decision about engaging in sexual activity with someone who could expose them to HIV.

An appeals court upended the conviction for reasons unrelated to the controversy.

The court ruled that recordings of telephone calls Johnson made from jail in October and November 2013 were not disclosed to his attorney until the first day of trial in May 2015, according to court documents.

The appeals court determined that didn’t give the defense enough time to properly review the tapes.

The calls were used during trial to cast doubt on Johnson’s claim that he did disclose that he was HIV-positive to his sex partners.

In the recordings, Johnson said he was “pretty sure” he had disclosed his HIV status, said people wouldn’t want to be his friend if they learned of his status and said he was unsure how to tell people about having HIV.

On Thursday, Johnson submitted an Alford plea to all five original charges, acknowledging that the state has enough evidence to convict him. The concurrent 10-year sentence was the mandatory minimum for the two most serious charges: recklessly infecting and recklessly exposing a sexual partner to HIV.

The plea deal was originally offered to Johnson before his first trial in 2015, but was rejected, said Lohmar, the prosecuting attorney .

“I think 10 years was an appropriate sentence for the offense,” Lohmar said.

He said, however, that Missouri’s laws that criminalized not disclosing HIV were passed in the 1980s and may be dated.

“I think we had a lot more limited understanding about HIV and long-term consequences, so I think opponents of the law make a fair point,” Lohmar said. “But that’s something that would need to be handled by the Legislature.”

Johnson’s attorney Eric Selig said Johnson has already served more than four years of his sentence.

“I think that the fact that the minimum was 10 years, that that’s the best we can do, shows how severe these charges are,” Selig said. “There is no other disease that if you infect someone else with you’re charged with a crime.”

Johnson was expelled from Lindenwood after he was charged in the case, which was related to incidents in 2013 and involved at least one other Lindenwood student. Johnson is originally from Indiana, where he was a state wrestling champion in 2010.

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