Sex, lies and HIV: When what you don’t tell your partner is a crime
By Sergio Hernandez, Special to ProPublica
This story was co-published with BuzzFeed.
The more than 500 instances documented by ProPublica in which people have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to HIV-specific laws since 2003 represents one of the largest collections of such cases ever assembled. Still, it is almost certainly a substantial under-count.
The data was drawn from more than 1,300 records, including court files, police reports and registries of sex offenders and prisoners. Some law enforcement agencies refused to provide records about their cases or redacted names and case numbers, saying that the suspects’ HIV status — once used to prove their criminal guilt — should be protected out of concern for their medical privacy. (A full breakdown of the data is here.)
Some of the cases were originally compiled through public records requests made by the Sero Project; most were independently obtained by Pro-Publica.
Despite its limitations, the material creates a rough portrait of how these laws have been applied through the years.
ProPublica was able to find just four cases that involved lawmakers’ original concerns about protecting the blood and organ supply. Two of these four resulted in a conviction or guilty plea, one was dismissed, and the outcome of the last could not be determined.
For cases in which the route of potential transmission could be determined, the overwhelming majority involved sex. The circumstances and relationships in those cases confound stereotypes or preconceived notions: HIV-positive defendants and their accusers have included gay and straight couples in one-night stands, dating relationships or even years of marriage. Cases have involved instances of sex between prisoners, rape and child abuse.
In Waterloo, Iowa, 42-year-old Donald Bogardus, a church-going, HIV-positive gay man who also suffers from cerebral palsy, recently pleaded guilty to charges of failing to disclose his status to a partner. “I wanted to tell him, but when I went to say it, I clammed up,” Bogardus told the Daily Iowan last year. “So many things came across my mind. I was afraid he was going to blab it out to everybody. But I still regret not telling him. I really do.”
Bogardus currently works as a nurse’s assistant, but his guilty plea will place him on the state’s sex offender registry, barring him from working with patients in nursing homes.
Even just the fear of prosecution has had consequences for people with HIV. In New York, one HIV-positive woman interviewed by ProPublica said she didn’t report being raped because her attacker threatened to press charges for not disclosing her status. (New York does not have an HIV disclosure law, but the woman said she didn’t know that and feared prosecution because she’d heard of cases elsewhere.)
Women, including many alleged sex workers, were the accused in almost a quarter of the convictions and guilty pleas for which gender could be determined.
In St. Louis, Nigaila Gibbs was 20 years old when police arrested her during an undercover sting operation in 2010. Gibbs, who was born with HIV, began prostituting herself after aging out of Missouri’s foster care system. Police accused her of having sex with “hundreds” of clients and failing to warn them about her HIV status, although Gibbs told police she always practiced safe sex. At the time of Gibbs’ arrest, St. Louis County police encouraged potential victims to come forward. Three clients stepped up to complain about Gibbs, but a police spokesman said no one was found to be infected or charged with soliciting a prostitute.
Gibbs ultimately pleaded guilty to “performing an act of prostitution” while knowingly infected with HIV and was sentenced to five years in Missouri state prison. Today, searching for her name on Google turns up blog posts and message board threads titled “AIDS Whore Nigaila Gibbs May Have Infected Hundreds!” and “Fat ugly prostitute infects over 100 clients w/ HIV.”
In one 2006 case, the defendant was already in prison when he was charged with an HIV-related offense.
Thomas Tompkins was serving his last month in prison at Ohio’s Richland Correctional Institution when a guard caught him performing oral sex on another inmate in the prison library. State police questioned the two inmates about whether the encounter was consensual, and both men agreed it was. But when Tompkins acknowledged that he had not disclosed his HIV-positive status to the other inmate, prosecutors accused him of felonious assault with HIV.
Scientists agree that a man who receives oral sex has virtually zero chance of contracting HIV.
Still, Tompkins pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated assault, adding an extra year to his sentence.
And in a 2010 case from South Carolina, a 32-year-old man named Jesus Cazares spent five months in the Marion County jail awaiting trial for “exposing another to HIV.” He pleaded guilty and was credited with time served, but not before U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement filed to detain him on immigration charges. In February 2011, Cazares was released into ICE custody, and a federal judge ordered him “removed” to Mexico.
In addition to the convictions and guilty pleas, ProPublica found at least 179 instances in which people were acquitted or had their cases dismissed. Yet even then, the repercussions can be severe. The accused can find their names splashed in local news accounts, making their HIV status common knowledge; they can lose jobs, homes, family members and friends; and if they can’t make bail, they can be stuck in jail, where inmates can face spotty access to HIV medications and other problems.
Last year, St. Louis prosecutors accused 40-year-old Adam Childs of exposing an ex-boyfriend to HIV. While awaiting trial in the city jail, records show, Childs was raped by another inmate and moved to protective custody. A few months later, a nurse and a prison guard were dispensing medications in Childs’ cell block when they found his lifeless body hanging over the stainless steel toilet in his cell, strung from a sprinkler cover with a blue, standard-issue jail bed sheet.