A new development in the case involving Michael L. Johnson, the gay 25-year-old former college wrestler currently serving 30 years in prison for exposing four men to the HIV virus and infecting one.
Johnson, who also went by the name “Tiger Mandingo,” was convicted in May 2015 by an all-straight, nearly all-white jury of which two-thirds openly admitted that they believed being gay was both a sin and a choice. He was found guilty of five counts relating to his HIV status and sentenced to three decades behind bars, and will have to register as a sex offender upon his release. Since being carted off to prison, Johnson has spent much of his time in solitary confinement.
Now, the Associated Press reports that an appeals court in Missouri has agreed to rehear the case after it found recordings of phone calls Johnson made while he was in jail awaiting trial should not have been allowed as evidence in the case.
A three-judge panel at the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District ruled that Judge Jon Cunningham, who originally oversaw the trial and who scolded Johnson for his “very severe crimes” before sending him to prison for 30 years, erred by admitting the jailhouse recordings into evidence, which were not disclosed to Johnson’s attorney until day one of the trial.
The court panel determined that “there was at least a reasonable likelihood” that the surprise evidence introduced by prosecutors could have prevented Johnson’s lawyer from mounting “a meaningful defense” and that intentionally waiting to reveal the recordings was done so “to gain a strategic advantage.”
The panel didn’t address Johnson’s argument that his sentence was unfairly disproportionate to the crime, however. His attorney contended that the sentence violated a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Missouri is one of 33 states that have HIV criminalization laws, which AIDS activists have slammed for being outdated and unfairly targeting black men.