The conviction of Michael Johnson, a former college wrestler sentenced in July 2015 to 30 years in prison, has been reversed. A jury found him guilty of five felony charges: “recklessly infecting” a sex partner and “recklessly risking infection” of four others. The jury recommended 30 years for the most serious charge and 30 years for the others, but the trial judge allowed him to serve both terms concurrently.
The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District reversed Johnson’s conviction, ruling that the trial judge incorrectly allowed as evidence recordings of telephone calls Johnson made while in jail. The recordings were not disclosed to defense lawyers until the beginning of the trial. The withholding of the recordings was the first of two points defense lawyers had used to appeal the conviction.
The second point made by Johnson’s lawyers was that his conviction was unconstitutional. In Missouri, HIV transmission is a Class A felony, which is equivalent to murder. The defense attorneys argued that based on current science, HIV transmission should not be equated with murder. The appeals court chose not to consider the second point, which leaves the Missouri HIV law unchanged.
During the trial, prosecutors alleged that Johnson failed to disclose his HIV-positive status to his consensual sex partners. The defense claimed Johnson did disclose his status to the men involved. The recordings undermined the defense. In the recordings, Johnson said he was “pretty sure” he had disclosed. He also said he was hesitant to disclose and was concerned about having transmitted HIV.
The prosecutors did not reveal they were going to use the recordings until a few days before the trial. The defense requested access to the recordings, but the prosecutors withheld them from the defense until the first day of the trial. The appeals court found that the withholding was “knowing and intentional” and part of a “trial-by-ambush strategy” by the prosecutors.
It is yet unknown whether the state will choose to retry him. The Johnson case has already gained national attention, and Johnson has widespread support from advocates for HIV criminalization reform. If a new trial takes place, the case will surface yet again the constitutional concerns.