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 last in a series of stories on HIV stigma and criminalization
Harris’ decision to give Rhoades the maximum sentence immediately caught the attention of the local news me-dia. “I got lots of mail,” Rhoades recalled. “I got mail from friends, family. I got mail from POZ magazine” — a monthly publication for people with HIV/AIDS. “I got mail from supporters who didn’t even know me.”
Judge Harris was also getting mail. Over the summer, he received a letter from Jeanne Brager, a friend of Rhoades’ who lived in Modesto, Calif., urging the judge to modify the sentence. “Murderers and child rapists receive less time than this young man did,” Brager wrote. “He is not a man with a criminal mind. Prison will destroy him. He has far too much goodness and sensitivity to survive in such surroundings. He will simply wither away and die.”
Harris also heard from Mark Kassis, an HIV/AIDS advocate in Ames, Iowa, who argued that jailing people with HIV for failing to disclose their status set a dangerous precedent and would “deepen the stigma around the disease” that “actually leads to the spread of HIV.”
The letters seemed to work. A few months later, Rhoades got a call from his attorney. “Judge Harris approached him and said, ‘Now would be a good time to apply for that [sentence] reconsideration,’” Rhoades re-called. “Judge Harris said, ‘You apply for it, I’m going to grant it.’” (Harris declined to comment for this article.)
On Sept. 11, 2009, Harris granted Rhoades’ application for a sentence reduction, lowering his sentence to five years of supervised probation. Rhoades, who now lives in Waterloo, must obey an 11 p.m. curfew, wear a GPS monitoring bracelet, cannot use social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, cannot drink alcohol and must obtain permission from a probation officer to leave the county, even to visit his parents in nearby Plainfield. He remains a registered sex offender and, as a convicted felon, he cannot vote.
Around the time that Rhoades’ sentence was reduced, Sean Strub, a fellow Iowan, was wading into the debate over HIV exposure laws. Strub, a tall, wiry 55-year-old is a well-known AIDS activist and the founder of the Sero Project and POZ magazine. In 1985, Strub was living in New York City when he was diagnosed with HIV. He nearly died in the mid-1990s, until a daily regimen of 18 pills turned his health around.
When Strub learned about Rhoades’ case, he introduced him to a civil rights attorney named Dan Johnston. In 1969, a young Johnston was working with the American Civil Liberties Union when he won Tinker v. Des Moines, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that established free speech rights for students in public schools. Johnston, who happened to be planning a visit to Iowa that weekend to celebrate Tinker’s 30th anniversary, agreed to meet with Rhoades and Joseph Glazebrook, a gay 29-year-old attorney based in Des Moines.
Glazebrook had worked closely with HIV-positive clients, but mostly on employment discrimination cases. “When I first got the case, I probably was not the most sympathetic person on this issue,” Glazebrook recalled. “I guess my uninformed opinion was probably rooted in the assumption that it’s never OK to have sexual relations with somebody without disclosing things about you that could hurt them,” he said.
But as he worked on the case, his position shifted.
“Even if it’s the moral thing to do — to be open and honest with your sexual partners about any threat to your sexual partner — that may be a very legitimate and moral position to take, but it doesn’t make sense to legislate based upon that particular thought or feeling,” he said.
In 2010, Glazebrook and Johnston filed a petition in Black Hawk County court seeking post-conviction relief, alleging that Rhoades’ original defense lawyer had failed to fully investigate the case; that Rhoades did not understand what he was pleading guilty to; and that there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain the charges in the first place. (Metcalf, Rhoades’ original defense attorney, did not respond to requests for an interview.)
According to Rhoades’ appellate lawyers, the fact that he used a condom was proof that he did not intend to expose Plendl to HIV. In fact, they argued, wearing a condom suggested the opposite: Rhoades was trying to protect Plendl.
But Iowa’s law, which bans “the intentional exposure of the body of one person to a bodily fluid of another person in a manner that could result in” HIV transmission, doesn’t make an exception for safe sex. Rhoades hadn’t disclosed that he has HIV, so, the state argued, the “wrongful act is engaging in a sex act in a manner through which the virus could be transmitted.” It didn’t matter whether Rhoades used a condom, intended to expose or infect Plendl or even whether infection was likely. “Any kind of act in which a potential exchange of fluids exists is the kind of act that is criminalized by the statute,” the state said.
In 2011, just before Christmas Eve, county Judge David Staudt denied Rhoades’ petition, writing that his attorney had fully explained the statute and that Rhoades was “a very knowledgeable individual concerning the transmission or potential transmission of bodily fluids and its importance in the possibility of transmitting the HIV virus.”
The Iowa Supreme Court declined to hear another appeal but transferred the case to the state’s Court of Appeals, an intermediate-level court. In October, that court published a 3-0 ruling, upholding Rhoades’ conviction.
In an eight-page opinion, Judge Richard Doyle said Rhoades exposed Plendl to bodily fluids during the unprotected oral sex. Quoting earlier testimony from Rhoades’ doctor, the court concluded that although infection through unprotected oral sex is unlikely, it is still “possible,” and the conviction should be upheld. (Rhoades’ lawyers pointed out that Plendl was only exposed to Rhoades’ pre-ejaculate. In its friend-of-the-court brief, NASTAD called the risk of transmission in Rhoades’ case “likely zero or near zero,” while his doctor pegged the chance of transmission at one in a million.)
Rhoades’ lawyers, including Scott Schoettes, the Lambda attorney, are now asking the state Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal. While he does not have any more prison time to serve, Rhoades’ conviction under the state’s HIV exposure law makes him a “Tier III” sex offender for life. This designation groups Rhoades with the worst of the worst — “sexually motivated” killers and kidnappers, child molesters, rapists and sex traffickers.
Every six months, at a small, nondescript office building across the Cedar River from downtown Waterloo, a polygraph examiner is brought in to conduct a “maintenance examination,” in which Rhoades must answer a series of questions about his sex life: “Have you ever had any sexual activity with an animal?” “Have you worn female clothing during masturbation?” “Have you ever had sexual contact with a corpse?”
Over the summer, while the court’s decision was still pending, I received an email from Rhoades, sent from the psychiatric unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. A few days earlier, Rhoades said, he had attempted suicide, fashioning a belt into a makeshift noose and swallowing a mixture of anti-seizure drugs and sleeping pills.
For four weeks, Rhoades said, he was hospitalized as doctors worked to rein in his moods using Lamictal, a drug typically used to treat bipolar disorder and seizures. At one point, he recalled, his mood swings became so severe that his doctors began to consider electroconvulsive therapy — shock treatment.
“I’m either going to live and somehow make it and thrive — OR I’m going to fucking put on my best face and charm my way out of here and who knows what will happen then,” he wrote from the hospital.
On July 3, I received another email. Rhoades’ mood had improved to the point that doctors were ready to let him go, with “pretty intensive outpatient follow-up.”
The next day — exactly five years and one week after his encounter with Adam Plendl — the doctors sent Rhoades home.
His nurse, he wrote, had “convinced them that I am not an imminent danger to myself or anyone else.”
When I asked if he considered himself dangerous, he wrote back:
“I’m never a danger to anyone else.”