Michael Johnson, a former college wrestler convicted of failing to disclose to sexual partners that he was HIV-positive in a racially charged case that reignited calls to re-examine laws that criminalize HIV exposure, walked out of a Missouri prison on July 9 25 years earlier than expected, the New York Times reports. Johnson, 27, was released on parole after an appeals court found that his 2015 trial was “fundamentally unfair.” His case, which encompasses a half-dozen years of court appearances, unflattering headlines and periods in solitary confinement, has galvanized advocates working to update laws that they say stigmatize and unfairly penalize people with HIV.
Johnson, who was a black, gay athlete at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., has become a public face of people who are disproportionately affected by the virus and entangled in the criminal justice system. Johnson was arrested in 2013 after a white man told police he believed Johnson had given him the virus in consensual sex. Five other men, three of them white, would testify that Johnson had not only failed to disclose his HIV status before engaging in consensual sex, but had willfully lied about it. Johnson has maintained that he informed all six men he was HIV-positive before having sex. Johnson was convicted on multiple felony counts and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. Some people who put him in prison say the sentencing and parts of the prosecution were mishandled. “We’re still operating under laws that were based on views that are outdated and are proven inaccurate by science,” said Tim Lohmar, St. Charles County prosecuting attorney. Missouri is one of about 34 states with laws making it a crime to expose another person to the virus without disclosure or add penalties for people with HIV who are convicted of separate offenses, such as sex work.