Wrestler Sentenced To 30 Years For Infecting Partner With HIV Gets New Trial

At trial, prosecution claimed Johnson was worse than a murderer.

A new trial has been ordered for a Missouri man sentenced to 30 years in prison for infecting another man with HIV and endangering other sexual partners.

The Missouri Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and sentence of former college wrestler Michael Johnson, ruling that his original trial was tainted by the inclusion of jailhouse phone calls Johnson made.

Those recordings weren’t disclosed to Johnson’s attorneys until the first day of his trial.

The prosecution’s violation was “knowing and intentional and was part of a trial-by-ambush strategy,” Judge James M. Dowd ruled on Tuesday.

Last year Johnson, 24, was convicted of five counts of recklessly exposing and infecting partners under Missouri’s HIV criminalization law.

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Six men testified that Johnson, who used the stage name “Tiger Mandingo,” failed to disclose he was HIV-positive when they had sex, a Class B Felony under Missouri law.

But authorities uncovered more than 30 videos of the former athlete having unprotected sex. Police testified that more than a dozen men came forward after hearing about Johnson’s case, claiming he had sex with him—none wanted to file charges.

“What you have seen and heard [at trial] is only the tip of the iceberg,” Missouri prosecutor Philip Groenweghe told the jury at sentencing. “Now we can tell you more.”

The prosecution described unknown men receiving anal sex from Johnson without a condom—as well as other activities, including masturbation and oral sex. A family friend described Johnson as a “gentle giant,” but Groenweghe said the case was worse than the murder trials he’s tried.

A murder ended when “someone is hit by a bullet and died.” HIV, he argued, has “an agenda” to “make as many copies of itself as it possibly can.” In Johnson, the virus “could not have had a more accommodating host,” who had unprotected sex with “one young man after another.”

“And they were probably promiscuous,” Groenweghe continued, red-faced and loud. “You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”

Johnson’s attorneys argued his partners had a responsibility for their own sexual health, and that HIV is not the death sentence it was when Missouri’s mandatory disclosure laws were enacted in the 1990s. They also accused the prosecution of using fear and racism to get a conviction.

In March 2015, Republican state Rep. Travis Fitzwater introduced HB 1181, which proposed adding “spitting while HIV-positive” to Missouri’s already draconian HIV criminal statutes.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery