ST. LOUIS — The defendant in a sensational and racially charged HIV case, Michael Johnson, said he has spent the last three months in "the hole," confined alone in his cell for up to 23 hours a day.
Johnson, better known by as "Tiger Mandingo," has become the face of laws that criminalize HIV-positive people for having sex without telling their partners they are infected, even if they practice safe sex or take medication that can slash the risk of transmitting the virus. He was the subject of an investigation by BuzzFeed News last summer.
Johnson, who is black and a former college wrestler, is accused of transmitting HIV to one person and exposing five other to the virus without having told them he's HIV-positive before having sex with them. Four of Johnson's six accusers are white; two are black.
Unable to afford bail, Johnson has been behind bars since he was arrested in October 2013. Jury selection for his trial began today.
In phone interviews from St. Charles County Detention Center, Johnson, 23, said he has been segregated from the general population of inmates since Feb. 10, kept mostly in isolation. He told BuzzFeed News that he is allowed to see visitors once every two weeks and make phone calls, but that he rarely sees other human beings and spends most of his time locked up alone. He said he isn't allowed to go to church services.
He said the detention center staff haven't told him why he's been isolated for so long. But, he said, "Another inmate said I threatened to expose him to HIV by throwing my blood on him." But Johnson, who had no previous criminal record before this case, denied he had ever made such a threat or had been in any kind of fight in the jail.
Johnson said that the national and Missouri branches of the Americans Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter asking the jail if he was being isolated because he is HIV positive and requesting that he be moved back into the general population by April 23. Johnson said the date came and passed without any acknowledgment. The ACLU did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Colene McEntee, spokeswoman for the St. Charles County Department of Corrections, wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News that she could "not comment on an individual inmate's correctional status or medical condition." The reason, she wrote, was "to protect an inmate's rights and privacy." She said the facility "does not have a 'hole' or solitary confinement/detention" but "does maintain an administrative segregation housing unit. Inmates housed in this unit are entitled to all the rights and privileges of an inmate housed in a general population housing unit."
Tracy Johnson, Johnson's mother, told BuzzFeed News that her son's segregation "all came about after two or three attempts to see if he was going to take a plea" bargain to avoid a trial. "And conveniently, after there was going to be no plea, then all of a sudden, he was in administrative segregation."
Spokespeople for both the St. Charles County Prosecutor Timothy Lohmar, whose office is trying the case, and the Department of Corrections denied there was any connection between Johnson's administration segregation and a possible plea bargain.
Johnson said he "was never going to take a plea."
Almost immediately after he was arrested last fall, Johnson was expelled from his Lindenwood University, months before he was formally indicted in January 2014 of one count of HIV transmission and four of HIV exposure. An additional charge of HIV transmission was added last month. BuzzFeed News contacted or attempted to contact five of Johnson's accusers, but they all declined to comment.
If convicted, Johnson could face decades behind bars, and life as a registered sex offender, if and when he would ever get out of prison.
Prosecuting attorney Lohmar, who has declined to speak to BuzzFeed News about the case over the past year, described Johnson's case in 2013 "a very concerning situation." After Johnson was arrested, he told the St. Louis Dispatch there could be "other victims out there" who had allegedly acquired HIV from Johnson.
Johnson's is perhaps the most racially charged HIV case since that of Nushawn Williams in the 1990s, who had unprotected sex with dozens or perhaps hundreds of women in New York State, and who was the subject of the book Notorious H.I.V.
Johnson chose the racially laden nickname "Tiger Mandingo" on social media and hookup apps such as Grindr and Jackd. Preliminary social science data and news accounts suggest a correlation between race and prosecution for HIV-related crimes. St. Charles County, where Johnson's trial will be held, is 91% white. Of the 51-member jury pool for his case, 49 appear to be caucasian.
Johnson's highly publicized arrest made him the modern face of what activists call "HIV criminalization," laws that make it a crime for anyone who knows they are HIV-positive to expose another person to the virus without disclosing their status.
Thirty-three states have "laws explicitly focused on persons living with HIV," according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those laws were passed when there was no effective treatment for HIV. Today, taking antiretroviral drugs has been shown to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV by more than 90%. And people who are uninfected can also sharply reduce the odds of acquiring HIV by taking medication.
Yet some states criminalize spitting by an HIV-positive person, even though it has been known for decades that saliva cannot transmit HIV.
When BuzzFeed News first interviewed him a year ago, Johnson (who has very little money) was represented only by public defender Heather Donovan, who was the only lawyer in court today representing Johnson. Now he has been getting some support from Lambda Legal, a gay advocacy group; the nonprofit Center for HIV Law and Policy; and the Sero Project, an activist organization that opposes the laws being used to prosecute Johnson.
Additionally, on Thursday of last week, HIV public health experts and faith leaders sent a letter to prosecuting attorney Lohmar asked for a meeting "to discuss reasonable alternatives to the current criminal law handling of Michael L. Johnson that might better protect the community at large and avoid the destruction of this young man's life." Among those who signed the letter was the Medical Director for Corrections Medicine for the Saint Louis County Department of Health Dr. Fred Rotnek. Others include Reginald T. Brown of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, social worker Aaron Laxton, and AIDS activists Sean Strub and Peter Staley.
"The demonization of Mr. Johnson not only has destroyed his life, it is providing ample evidence that the best way to avoid prosecution is to avoid ever getting tested or treated for HIV," the letter read.
"It is cases such as Mr. Johnson's that has led the American Medical Association, the HIV Medicine Association, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, and the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, among others, to issues statements calling for the reform of laws that allow this kind of witch hunt based on health status."
Also, on Friday, a group of 89 black gay men published an open letter in Mused Magazine. "HIV is not a crime," the letter stated, "and you should not be in prison."
Two of Johnson's accusers are black, and four are white. A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that only one of his accusers is black, and five are white.