Advocates for change in Iowa’s HIV criminal transmission law are hopeful but not sanguine about their chances for success. Randy Mayer, who heads the Iowa Department of Public Health bureau for HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases, anticipates some resistance if a reform bill is introduced.
“I don’t think most legislators feel the law has been abused,” he said.
Proponents of the present HIV law point to cases in which they say horrific behavior was appropriately prosecuted. Reformers say other laws already on the books provide sufficient tools for prosecuting criminals, be they HIV positive or not.
At least three of the 15 individuals convicted to date under Iowa’s law exposed a minor to the virus, and at least one case involved a man exposing a mentally ill woman incapable of understanding the consequences associated with contracting HIV.
Nine of those 15 are still in jail, including Matthew Powills, convicted in 2005 after sexually molesting his stepdaughter. Upon his arrest, investigators found more than 1,000 images on his computer of prepubescent females posing nude and performing sex acts. He was found guilty of both HIV criminal transmission and sexual abuse in the second degree and sentenced to 25 years in prison for each of the two charges, to run consecutively. Records do not reveal whether Powills actually transmitted the virus to his stepdaughter.
Another of those convicted was Jimmy Stevens, a Black Hawk county man who had oral sex with a 15-year-old boy. The boy said he didn’t know Stevens was HIV positive. Stevens was sentenced to 35 years in prison, 25 for criminal transmission of HIV and 10 for sexual abuse in the third degree. Stevens did not transmit the virus.
Then there are the four cases involving documented transmission of HIV.
A Coralville man, Adam Musser, was convicted in 2006 of four counts of criminal transmission, and transmitted the virus to at least one woman.
Musser’s victim, Kerri Coiner, told the Sioux City Journal that she was “in shock and crying” when she found out that she was HIV positive. At Musser’s trial, Coiner testified that when she’d first asked Musser if he “had anything,” meaning a sexually transmitted disease, he said no.
Lonnie Tabor, convicted in 2009, dated his girlfriend for three years without telling her he was HIV positive and ended up infecting her with the virus. Early last year, his appeal for a new trial was rejected.
David Porter, convicted in 2000 in Black Hawk County, also transmitted the virus. According to a Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier article, the woman he infected found out she was HIV positive while trying to donate blood plasma.
Dewayne Boyd, the lone HIV transmission case prosecuted in Dickinson County in north central Iowa, married a woman without disclosing his HIV status and infected her with the virus. After his wife was hospitalized for infection and learned of her positive status, his father-in-law reported him.
Those seeking change to Iowa’s HIV law say that any of these circumstances could be prosecuted using other laws on the books that don’t single out HIV positive individuals. “Recklessly causing injury to another,” “inflicting grievous bodily harm,” and “reckless endangerment” are all charges on which HIV positive people have been tried in other places around the country. In order to press charges against a person for under these laws in Iowa, however, a victim would have to prove intent to do harm, a stipulation not a part of the current HIV transmission law.
Punishments on such charges would also be less severe than the current penalty under Iowa’s HIV law. Hypothetically, if a person wanted to press a charge for willfull injury with regards to the transmission of HIV, the most serious penalty would render a class “c” felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Criminal transmission of HIV is currently a class “b” felony, punishable by up to 25 years.
In New York state, where the Nushawn Williams case prompted a nationwide panic, still has no HIV specific law. Williams boasted of having sex with up to 300 women and girls, and was found to have infected at least 16 people. He was prosecuted for statutory rape (at least two of his victims were underage) and reckless endangerment. Due to be released after 12 years in prison, he remained held under a civil confinement law aimed at sex offenders.
Texas has arrested 22 people for transmission and exposure without a specific law addressing the virus. Since 1989, Canada has convicted at least 43 people for HIV transmission or exposure without an HIV specific law, and the United Kingdom has convicted 14.
In addition to being unnecessary, critics say, laws specific to HIV compound the stigma associated with the virus, furthering discrimination against people with HIV/AIDs and promoting myths about certain population groups.
Societies typically respond to the appearance of a new contagious disease with fear and scapegoating, according to Jennifer Harbour, visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa. HIV criminal transmission laws reflect this historical pattern, she said.
Such laws reinforce the tendency to blame gay men, black men and sex workers for the HIV/AIDs epidemic, Harbour said. “Like Typhoid Mary,” she explained, “people becoming infected with typhoid was not her fault, but we still blamed her for it. Most of the fear comes from misunderstanding. With HIV, we noticed that gay men were especially affected, and we didn’t understand that every human being could be affected.”
Typhoid Mary was an asymptomatic carrier of pathogen that causes typhoid fever in the early 1900s who was suspected of infecting around 50 people. She was labeled as unclean, and along with the immigrant Irish population, blamed for the spread of the illness.
Harbour compared laws criminalizing HIV transmission to laws barring interracial marriage in the past. They attempt to regulate behavior and work only to stigmatize and marginalize those they attempt to control. As with interracial marriage laws, she said, HIV transmission laws have outlasted the panic that created them, and ultimately the law will adapt to new realities.
Concern about stigma has led to suggestions that Iowa’s law should be revised to encompass “serious contagious diseases” instead of singling out HIV – so it would cover, for example, deliberate transmission of the human papilloma virus (HPV), some strains of which can lead to cervical cancer or hepatitis.
Right now, Iowa law does not provide a basis for criminal charges related to transmission of any disease apart from HIV, according to Des Moines attorney Joseph Glazenbrook, who is representing Nick Rhoades in appealing his HIV criminal transmission conviction.
Claims related to HPV or herpes or any other sexually transmitted infection might be addressed in a civil suit if a person wanted compensation for medical and psychological damages, Glazenbrook said, but actual transmission would have had to occur for such a suit to go anywhere. “I am not familiar with any case in Iowa in which a person has been awarded damages without actual transmission,” he said.
Apart from the interests of countering stigma, however, there is scant support for the notion that broadening the criminal law to include other diseases would actually help combat disease. Research has produced no evidence that HIV laws are successful in regulating health choices and decisions among HIV positive people—to the contrary, some argue, such laws inhibit people from getting tested and thus treated, because only those who know they are HIV positive can be prosecuted.
(IowaWatch Contributor Lindsey Moon is a research assistant for Iowa Public Radio and a senior
at the University of Iowa with a double major in journalism and mass
communication and anthropology)