Michael Johnson, the HIV-positive former college wrestler also known as “Tiger Mandingo,” pleaded no contest Thursday to one count of knowingly transmitting HIV to one man and four counts of exposing four others to the virus.
Under the terms of a so-called Alford plea deal — in which a defendant doesn’t admit guilt to a crime itself, but admits that there is enough evidence that they may be found guilty if their case goes to trial — Johnson accepted a sentence of 10 years but could be eligible for parole much sooner. Because he pleaded to charges under a health statute and not a sexual one, he will not be required to register as a sex offender in Missouri, where he’s incarcerated, or Indiana, where he’s from.
Johnson’s case has been closely watched because he was one of the most highly publicized targets of controversial HIV laws that make it a crime for HIV-positive people to have sex without first disclosing that they have the virus. Critics say the laws unjustly place all responsibility on the person with the virus and are outdated and harsh, given the tremendous medical advances in HIV care that can prevent people from developing AIDS. Publicity around Johnson’s case, which captured headlines around the globe, was also propelled by a volatile mix of race and sex. Many of the men Johnson was charged with exposing to HIV are white. And almost every news account featured photos Johnson had posted on social media of his dark-skinned, muscular, and often shirtless torso.
Johnson was convicted in May 2015 in St. Charles County Court, a mostly white suburb west of St. Louis, of one felony charge of “knowingly” transmitting HIV to one man and four charges of exposing four other men to the virus who did not contract it.
He was sentenced to 30.5 years in prison, a longer sentence than average for second-degree murder in Missouri. But in December last year, the Eastern District Court of Appeals in Missouri overturned Johnson’s conviction, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors had failed to turn over recordings of Johnson’s calls from prison to defense attorneys until the morning of the first day of trial. The phone recordings featured Johnson talking about whether he had disclosed his HIV status to his partners — a crucial piece of evidence that the defense lacked adequate time to prepare for, the appeals court ruled.
Prosecutors said they intended to retry Johnson, but instead he agreed to the 10-year plea deal. Johnson has already spent almost four years behind bars. His attorney, Eric Selig, said he could be eligible for parole immediately but predicted that Johnson, who has no prior offenses, would not be released for another six to 18 months.
Johnson appeared in court Thursday, with his arms and legs shackled, to formally enter his plea, which was approved by Judge Jon Cunningham. Three of Johnson’s friends stood by to lend support.
None of Johnson’s accusers were in the courtroom.
Prosecutor Philip Groenweghe read aloud the charges. These included graphic descriptions of gay sex acts in which the transmission of HIV is extremely unlikely if not impossible, such as that Johnson, “knowing you were infected by HIV,” had ejaculated on the back of his sexual partners.
Groenweghe’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Johnson told the judge that he understood what his plea meant. At the end of the hearing, he asked his guards if he could address his friends who were waiting on the far side of the courtroom.
"I just want to say thank you all, I appreciate your being here, and I love you,” Johnson said, before bailiffs took him away.
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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