Michael Johnson, the collegiate wrestler also known as “Tiger Mandingo” who was originally sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for “recklessly” exposing others to HIV, has been granted parole, his lawyers told BuzzFeed News.
However, Johnson will remain incarcerated at Boonville Correctional Facility until Oct. 9, 2019 — almost six years after Johnson was arrested and put behind bars for “knowingly” exposing or transmitting HIV to six male partners.
Johnson, whose arrest made headlines as far away as Australia, is one of the most highly publicized targets of America’s controversial HIV laws, which make it a crime for people who have tested positive for HIV to have sex without first disclosing that they have the virus. BuzzFeed News has written extensively about Johnson’s arrest and trial over the last four years: He was originally sentenced to 30.5 years, but in 2016, a Missouri appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that prosecuting attorney Philip Groenweghe had failed to disclose evidence in a timely fashion to Johnson’s attorneys. In 2017, Johnson agreed to a 10-year no contest “Alford” plea deal rather than face another trial.
Many prosecutors defend HIV laws as offering just punishment for behavior that can help transmit the virus. But AIDS advocates contend the laws are harsh and outdated, given the tremendous medical advances in HIV care. Many epidemiologists and AIDS advocates say the laws — which single out HIV — can actually fuel the epidemic by making people afraid to get tested and treated, and by fostering the dangerous belief that only the person who has tested positive for HIV is responsible for preventing transmission of the virus.
When Johnson was arrested in 2013, he was a star wrestler at Lindenwood University, where he was also one of the only black students. His trial, held in the nearly all-white town of St. Charles, Missouri, featured a highly-charged combination of race and sex. 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.
Last month, Johnson appeared before the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, where his friend, Meredith Rowan, attended as his delegate in the hearing. The board did not immediately respond to an email or phone call for comment, but Rowan said Johnson called her from prison today to tell her that his parole had been granted — with a delay.
“Michael was excited that it got approved,” Rowan told BuzzFeed News. “I have to look at it that I have a date, and it’s only 18 months away, and it’s still a lot sooner than a 30-year sentence,” Rowan said Johnson told her. If released as planned, Johnson will have served 60% of his 10-year sentence. The date is contingent upon Johnson not accruing any violations.
Johnson’s lawyers, Eric Selig and Jessica Hathaway, confirmed the terms of Johnson’s parole. ”We had some hopes, because of all the support Michael had received and a couple of other factors, that he would get out at an earlier date,” Selig said.
Johnson will live with Rowan and her family in Indiana when he is released, Rowan said. He will be supervised by parole officers for the duration of his 10-year sentence, until 2023.
Laws that single out HIV are widespread in the US. At least “67 laws explicitly focused on persons living with HIV had been enacted in 33 states” by 2011, according to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers from the US Department of Justice. In Missouri, where Johnson was convicted, people living with HIV can face life in prison for exposing others to HIV if they have sex without first disclosing that they have the virus.
Since Johnson’s arrest in 2013, the American Medical Association, the HIV Medicine Association, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, and others have criticized such laws as ineffective for combating AIDS. Researchers found “no association between HIV or AIDS diagnosis rates and criminal exposure laws across states over time, suggesting that these laws have had no detectable HIV prevention effect,” according to a study published last year in the journal AIDS.
In recent years, there have been significant changes in HIV laws in some states. In California last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill reducing HIV exposure from a felony to a misdemeanor. And in North Carolina earlier this year, activists successfully lobbied to change that state’s HIV laws to take into account contemporary HIV science, reflecting, for example, that people who are properly medicated cannot transmit the virus.