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Conviction for HIV nondisclosure found 'fundamentally unfair'

Being unjustly accused of a sex crime would be devastating to anyone. An unfair criminal accusation against a gay, black man with HIV could be immensely upsetting, especially because the accused is dealing with a major medical condition. African Americans and gay men already face societal challenges, and the added stigma often applied to HIV-positive individuals can make life nearly unbearable at times.

Unfortunately, during the panic of the 1980s, a lot of states passed some rather ill-conceived, punitive laws to regulate the behavior of people with HIV. Back then, the drugs that prevent the transmission of HIV, and the antiretrovirals which render it a chronic disease, hadn't been created. Some lawmakers sought to control the spread of HIV using the power of the criminal justice system.

Those unscientific laws remain on the books in some states. One such is Missouri, where in 2013 a gay, black man with HIV was charged with failing to disclose his HIV status to several sexual partners. The young man, a college student, insisted he had informed all of his sexual partners but was convicted on the basis of a cellphone conversation, secretly-recorded by jail personnel, in which he admitted he was merely "pretty sure" he had done so. He was sentenced to 30 years.

Civil rights advocates condemned the HIV disclosure mandate as outdated and poor public policy: "Except in the most extreme cases," said a lawyer for Lambda Legal, "the criminal law is far too blunt an instrument to address the subtle dynamics of HIV disclosure."

The problematic nature of the law, however, was not the reason this man's conviction was recently overturned, however. The reversal was required, said the state's court of appeals, because the prosecutor violated the defendant's constitutional rights during trial, rendering it "fundamentally unfair."

Remember those cellphone calls the county jail recorded that were the main evidence against the defendant? They were not provided to the defense until the morning of the trial.

That is unfair and unlawful -- and it's why this man's conviction was overturned. The defense is entitled to examine, well in advance of trial, all evidence the state prosecutor has obtained while investigating their client. The handing over of that evidence is referred to as "discovery."

"The State's blatant discovery violation here is inexcusable," the opinion reads.

This defendant, now in his mid 20s, did not "get off on a technicality." His conviction was reversed because prosecutors didn't play fair. A violation of a defendant's constitutional rights that an appellate court found 'inexcusable' is the furthest thing from technical.

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