On Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Michael Johnson, who was convicted on several felony counts in July 2015 for "recklessly" infecting one person with HIV and exposing four others to the virus, BuzzFeed reports.
Johnson, a black gay man who is HIV-positive, is currently serving his sentences, the longest of which is 30 years. While Johnson is not free, the court has ordered a new trial.
According to documents released by the Missouri Court, the "state's discovery violation resulted in fundamental unfairness," by withholding evidence, a serious breach of prosecutorial ethics. The document says prosecutors had tapes of phone calls Johnson made from prison. Prosecutors only disclosed they had the recordings the morning of the trial, which "prevented Johnson from preparing a meaningful defense."
"Lambda Legal is elated with the outcome at the appellate level in Michael Johnson's case, and the second chance it provides Michael," Scott Schoettes, HIV project director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement.
Schoettes contended that HIV criminalization laws, which punish people living with HIV for not disclosing their status, regardless of their undetectable status or whether or not they used a condom, are the "real barrier to justice."
"The criminal law is far too blunt an instrument to address the subtle dynamics of HIV disclosure," Schoettes said. "Willingness to be open about HIV status will be created only by the destigmatization of HIV and policies that ensure people living with HIV are not singled out for discrimination or special prohibitions and punishments. Prosecutions like this — under antiquated laws like Missouri's — take us in the opposite direction."
In July 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice called for states to revamp their HIV criminalization laws, but 33 states currently criminalize HIV nondisclosure or exposure in some way. Advocates maintain that HIV criminalization laws are overly harsh, increase the stigma against HIV, hinder HIV prevention efforts and are antiquated laws that contradict current public health messages.