ST. CHARLES, MISSOURI — Michael Johnson, the HIV-positive former college wrestler better known as “Tiger Mandingo,” faces life in prison after being found guilty Thursday of one count of recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, one count of attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV, and three counts of recklessly exposing partners to HIV.
"They've paid their price,” prosecutor Philip Groenweghe said of Johnson’s partners during closing arguments. As for Johnson, he asked the jury: “What price shall he pay?"
The story of Johnson’s case, and the way in which it became both a media flashpoint and a morality tale, was the subject of a BuzzFeed News investigation last year.
Following a three-day trial, the jury reached a decision after just two hours of deliberation. Johnson’s mother, Tracy Johnson, was in attendance as the verdict was read, as was Dylan King Lemons, Johnson’s former partner, who testified that he went to police when he noticed that the HIV-positive Johnson was on gay hookup apps.
Lemons testified in court that he believed he contracted HIV from Johnson. He also said that after he confronted Johnson about being positive, and even though he believed Johnson had transmitted the virus to him, he and Johnson had consensual unprotected sex again.
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. Johnson was diagnosed by the Missouri Department of Health with HIV on Jan. 7, 2013. During the trial, the state argued Johnson had also been diagnosed with HIV more than a year earlier, in 2011, by the state of Indiana. The defense argued there was no paperwork with Johnson’s signature acknowledging his status with the state of Indiana until August of 2013.
Regardless, Johnson was accused of failing to disclose his status to all six of his sexual accusers, beginning with a sexual encounter on Jan. 8, 2013, the day after the state of Missouri diagnosed him.
Johnson was specifically charged on six counts: transmitting HIV to Lemons and to Charles Pfoutz through anal sex (both Class A felonies); one Class B felony for attempting to expose HIV to Montell Moore through anal sex without transmission; and three additional Class B felonies for exposing Christian Green, Filip Cukovic, and Andrew Tryon to HIV. Johnson was convicted on all counts, except the one involving Pfoutz, which was added by the prosecution just last month.
All six of Johnson’s accusers testified that Johnson did not disclose his HIV status. Multiple medical professionals testified that they had informed Johnson of his status and advised him it was a felony to fail to disclose.
Johnson for his part testified that he had disclosed his HIV status to all six of his sexual partners before they had sex.
Some of the prosecution’s testimony created a narrative around HIV’s dangers that was not based on contemporary medical science. For example, Dr. Otha Myles, a medical expert for the prosecution, described having HIV as a “terminal” disease, though it is very treatable and life expectancy with medication is quite normal.
The trial also occasionally featured notable tension between the attorneys. On Wednesday, for example, Public Defender Heather Donovan abruptly walked out of the courtroom in tears causing an unplanned recess after prosecutor Groenweghe loudly implied she had withheld evidence from a witness who was testifying as a medical expert for the defense. On Thursday morning, Donovan burst out that Groenweghe had “pulled this crap” yesterday after he objected to something she said. Judge Jon Cunningham admonished her to be “civil.”
Johnson’s case has been racially charged since news broke that the black college wrestler called himself “Tiger Mandingo.” St. Charles, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb where the trial was held, is 91% white. Only one of the twelve jurors was black, but two of Johnson’s accusers were black, while four were white.
But race was rarely spoken about directly in court, except when Donovan asked the jury pool if anyone had a problem with interracial gay sex, and when accuser Philip Cukovic, an exchange student from Serbia, testified that he was very attracted to Johnson because they don’t have many black people in his country.
Sexual orientation was spoken of much more often. Of 51 potential jurors, only 13 said they believed homosexuality was not a sin. The final jury was composed of both those who said it wasn’t and those who said it was.
In the end, the prosecution was successful in framing the complicated case around a simple premise: Did Johnson disclose his status or not?
Sentencing will begin Friday morning. Johnson faces a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 30 years to life.