The Deceptive Fermata of HIV-Criminalization Law: Rereading the Case of "Tiger Mandingo" through the Juridico-Affective

By Lawless, Joseph F. | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

The Deceptive Fermata of HIV-Criminalization Law: Rereading the Case of "Tiger Mandingo" through the Juridico-Affective


Lawless, Joseph F., Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


Abstract

In July 2015, Michael Johnson, a twenty-three-year-old Black queer college student in Missouri, was sentenced to slightly over thirty years in prison on one count of reckless transmission of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) to another person and on four counts of reckless attempted transmission of HIV. Johnson's conviction and exorbitant carceral sentence are not unique, however. State penal laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV have existed for well over twenty-five years and have remained nearly impervious to legal challenge throughout that time. This Article queries the continued vitality of HIV-criminalization laws and argues that their survival reflects their investment in appeals to the affective--the sensations of bodily impingement and intrusion that the terrifying spectacle of HIV is meant to conjure. The injection of the affective into the jurisprudential regime of HIV criminalization is shown to be at the core of Michael Johnson's prosecution and conviction, animating Johnson's unwitting transformation into HIV itself Reflecting on this disturbing genealogy, the discussion concludes with both legal and critical prescriptions to combat the persistence of HIV stigma.

PRELUDE: THE CRIMINAL THEATER OF "TIGER MANDINGO"

In early October 2013, a queer white male student of Lindenwood University, located in St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, had his second sexual experience with fellow Lindenwood student Michael Johnson. (1) The two had first met through a cellphone application often used by queer men to facilitate sexual encounters; Johnson, a twenty-three-year-old Black transfer student and member of the university's wrestling team, employed the username "Tiger Mandingo." (2) That evening, Johnson and his partner had condomless anal sex for the first time. (3) The choice to forego condom use during anal intercourse--a practice sometimes referred to as "bareback sex" among queer men--was allegedly made by Johnson's partner. (4) The student's interest in Johnson had been piqued because, in his words, Johnson was "only [his] third [B]lack [sexual partner]." had a "huge" penis, and had described himself as "clean," an unfortunately common euphemism for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) seronegativity. (5) On October 10, 2013, several days after their encounter, Johnson informed his partner that he had tested positive for '"a disease"' and that he did not know whether a cure for it existed. (6) As he would come to understand, Johnson had tested positive for HIV.

Later that same day, "Johnson was pulled out of class and led away in handcuffs by [police] ... [and was] charged with [two counts] of "recklessly infecting another with HIV' and four counts of 'attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV,'" all felonies in the state of Missouri. (7) Johnson was immediately detained in a county jail, where he would spend the next eighteen months, primarily in solitary confinement, until his trial began on May 11, 2015. (8) The trial lasted for several days, and, after having left for some two hours to deliberate, the jury reached its verdict: Johnson was found guilty on one count of reckless transmission of HIV and on all four counts of reckless exposure of HIV. (9) The following morning, the jury convened to hear arguments about sentencing from both the prosecution and Johnson's counsel; it took them an hour to sentence Johnson to a total of slightly more than sixty years in prison. (10) The trial judge scheduled a final sentencing hearing for July 13, 2015, during which he "ruled that Johnson could serve his sentences concurrently and sentenced him to [thirty] years in prison." (11)

The conviction of Michael Johnson emblematizes the egregious jurisprudential system responsible for the ongoing criminalization of the HIV-positive sexual subject. (12) The legal history of HIV criminalization, now approaching three decades in age, has been thoroughly documented by scholars whose work spans multiple disciplines; accordingly, my purpose here will not be to supplement the incisive work detailing the HIV-criminalization regime. …

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