This Christmas, 23-year-old Michael Johnson is getting a second chance.
Johnson—infamously known as "Tiger Mandingo," a name he used on hookup apps and social media—was sentenced to 30.5 years in prison for "recklessly infecting" one man and exposing or attempting to expose the virus to four others in a Missouri court last May.
Missouri has one of the most stringent HIV exposure and transmission laws in the nation, and Johnson's trial drew intense scrutiny and criticism over what smacked of recurring themes of discrimination based on race, HIV status, and sexual orientation.
Johnson—who is black, gay and has learning disabilities—was a star wrestler at the predominantly white Lindenwood University. His accusers, nearly all white, claimed Johnson never disclosed his status, though he says otherwise. His defense team, meanwhile, was woefully ill-prepared and inexperienced, while the prosecution purposely withheld crucial evidence till the last minute, attempted to stack the jury against Johnson, and reduced him to a series of stereotypes.
As BuzzFeed notes:
Prosecutors asked would-be jurors if being gay was a "choice," and evidence presented to the court included graphic descriptions of Johnson’s “huge” penis—and even images of it.
11 out of the 12 jurors ended up being white, and all identified as straight and HIV-negative, upending that whole trial by a "jury of one's peers" thing.
After his sentence, Johnson had appealed on the grounds that the prosecution "abused its discretion by admitting recordings of phone calls Johnson made while in jail that were not disclosed to the defense until the morning of the first day of trial" and that Johnson's sentence was "grossly disproportionate to the crime," thus qualifying as "cruel and unusual punishment."
Yesterday, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Johnson's first argument, excoriating the prosecution for its "trial by ambush strategy," but declined to consider the latter, despite significant advancements in both HIV treatment and prevention, in regards to both parties.
The Center for HIV Law and Policy, along with 21 national and state HIV, social justice, and LGBT organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief earlier this year in support of Johnson, arguing "that Missouri’s criminal HIV law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Constitutional protections against irrational treatment of disabilities such as HIV."
“The law under which he is charged is based on outdated science from a time when HIV policy was based on panic,” said ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert. “The prosecution used that fear, along with racism and homophobia, to get a conviction.”
Rothert worries, however, that if the “case returned for a new trial, the problem remains that the prosecution is built on inflaming public fears about those individuals with HIV, gay people, and black men.”
As for Johnson, who has been in and out of solitary confinement since first being imprisoned three years ago, he will remain in prison until a new trial is announced.