The Missouri Court of Appeals overturned a trial court’s conviction of a college student accused of failing to disclose his HIV positive status to a sexual partner he infected, the Washington Post reports.
In its opinion released on Tuesday, the panel of judges chastised the prosecutor for making the trial unfair by failing to disclose a cellphone recording of the defendant until the first day of the trial. Consequently, the appeals court ordered a new trial.
The defendant, Michael L. Johnson, was a student wrestler at Lindenwood University, located in the St. Louis area, when he learned in January 2013 that he was HIV positive. Shortly after that, he had unprotected sex with another student, who testified that Johnson failed to disclose his status.
A few weeks after their sexual encounter, Johnson’s partner learned that he too was HIV positive. He reported Johnson to the police after discovering that Johnson continued to hookup with other people without disclosing his status.
A jury convicted Johnson on three felonies: recklessly infecting a sexual partner with HIV, recklessly exposing a partner to HIV and attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV–based on a statute that gay rights groups say are outdated. The judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison, in a judicial proceeding that human rights groups condemned as anti-gay and racists.
Johnson pleaded not guilty, and insisted he informed his partner of his status.
However, the prosecutor presented evidence that contradicted Johnson’s claim: three clips of jailhouse cellphone conversations in which Johnson admitted he was only “pretty sure” that he told partners about his HIV status.
The appeals court said it was “inexcusable” to share that evidence with the defense team on the morning of the trial. It should have been done during the discovery process, long before the trial began.
The defense team was pleased with the court’s ruling.
“Statutes like the one used to prosecute Mr. Johnson are inherently problematic, as they promote stigma and animus towards people living with HIV in violation of their legal and constitutional rights,” Lawrence Lustberg, Johnson’s lawyer, told the Associated Press.