Michael Johnson, the former college wrestler known as "Tiger Mandingo," was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison Friday, and perhaps more than 60, after being convicted on five counts ranging from recklessly infecting a partner with HIV to recklessly exposing partners to the virus. Johnson was the subject of a BuzzFeed News investigation that examined how his racially charged case became a media sensation.
If all five of Johnson's sentences are served concurrently, he will serve 30 years. If they are served consecutively, he will serve 60 and a half years. Judge Jon Cunningham will determine the length in a hearing scheduled for July 13.
Under Missouri law, sentencing was determined by the same jury that convicted him Thursday. Friday, the jury heard the prosecution and defense present new evidence and character testimonies in a one-hour sentencing hearing. Then the jury took two and a half hours to decide Johnson's fate.
"What you have seen and heard so far is only the tip of the iceberg," prosecutor Philip Groenweghe said in opening arguments on Friday. "Now we can tell you more."
Groenweghe said that although six partners testified against Johnson, many more would not come forward. He also said that though the first phase of the trial only involved one consensually made sex video, there were more than 30 sex videos on Johnson's laptop, "almost all without condoms," and none showing Johnson disclosing his HIV status.
Missouri state law demands that all HIV-positive people disclose their status to their sexual partners, regardless of whether they practice safe sex or take medication that slashes the risk of transmitting the virus. In an email to BuzzFeed News last year, the St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney's office left open the possibility that charges might be made against Johnson for making the videos, implying they may have been produced without consent. But no such charges were ever filed.
As the prosecution displayed a still from each video, Detective Donald Stepp of the St. Charles Police gave explicit and detailed testimony. He said that each video showed a different unknown male either "receiving anal sex from Michael Johnson" without a condom or engaging in other kinds of sexual activity. Groenweghe emphasized the risk of transmitting HIV even when the stills showed low-risk activities, such as giving oral sex, and sex acts that cannot transmit HIV, such as when one man in a video masturbated Johnson "without a condom."
Johnson had been convicted of transmitting HIV to Dylan King Lemons, and at the hearing today, his mother, Christine Lemons, asked the jury should to send Johnson away for life.
"Dylan's diagnosis is a life sentence without parole," she said through tears. "So I ask each of you: Why does Michael Johnson deserve any less?"
Public Defender Heather Donovan argued that some of the videos were before Johnson's diagnosis in Missouri. During his trial, the prosecution, defense, and various experts disagreed about if and when Johnson had been previously diagnosed in Indiana. She also tried to show Johnson has a "simple mind." At one point, intending for him to explain his athletic scholarship, she asked him how he got to college. He answered that he took a bus.
Meredith Mills, a family friend from Indianapolis, testified in Johnson's defense, saying she'd known him since 2008 and had taken him on family trips with her small children. She also explained an audio clip of a recorded jailhouse conversation that she had with Johnson. The prosecution had played the clip in court, using it as evidence that Johnson would not want to tell people that he had HIV. But Mills testified that the conversation was actually about how hard it was to tell her he was gay.
Mills described him as a "gentle giant" and told BuzzFeed News later that she feared the jury might view him "as a monster or a statistic, and there's a person behind that. I wanted them to know who I saw as Michael Johnson."
Tracy Johnson, Michael's mother, attended the hearing but did not testify.
In closing remarks, Donovan asked the jury to consider that life with HIV is not a death sentence but a manageable disease. She also asked them, without saying she was blaming Johnson's partners, that "it takes two to have sex," and implored the jury to consider the partners' roles in maintaining their sexual health.
Groenweghe, with the final word, said this case was worse than the murder cases he's tried, because a murder ended when "someone is hit by a bullet and died." But HIV, Groenweghe argued, has "an agenda" to "make as many copies of itself as it possibly can." In Johnson, the virus "could not have had a more accommodating host," who had unprotected sex with "one young man after another."
"And they were probably promiscuous," Groenweghe continued, red-faced and loud. "You can't put that genie back in the bottle."
Johnson was ordered back to the St. Charles County Detention Center "for the time being" by Cunningham. He will next appear in court in July.
Steven W. Thrasher was named Journalist of the Year 2012 by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and Newsweek.
Contact Steven Thrasher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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