HIV nondisclosure case overturned for fundamental unfairness

Prosecutors in another state were just reminded of their ethical duty to try all cases fairly. In particular, a county prosecutor was called on the carpet for failing to disclose key evidence to the defense until the morning of trial.

It's ironic, isn't it? The shocking nondisclosure of evidence took place during a controversial prosecution of a young man for nondisclosure of his HIV-positive status.

The prosecution was indeed quite controversial. Civil rights groups, legal scholars and others protested immediately when a college wrestler was brought up on felony charges under a 1987 law that was controversial from the beginning. "Criminal law is far too blunt an instrument to address the subtle dynamics of HIV disclosure," explained an attorney for Lambda Legal.

Nevertheless, the young man was convicted of three felony counts of infecting, exposing, and attempting to expose others to HIV. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

'The State's blatant discovery violation here is inexcusable'

Disclosing evidence to the defense is a big part of any prosecutor's job. The Supreme Court has ruled that the defense should see the prosecution's entire case well in advance of trial. Prosecutors aren't allowed to win cases using unfair tactics -- such as keeping crucial evidence a secret until the morning of trial.

According to the appellate court, that's just was the prosecutor did. The crucial evidence was three jailhouse phone recordings. In one of them, the defendant said he was "pretty sure" he had informed all of his sexual partners of his HIV status; otherwise he had always claimed to be certain he had.

The defense had no time to prepare a response and the defendant was convicted. The appeals court determined that the secret recordings were made in 2013, while the trial didn't take place until 2015. The prosecutor had no excuse for the delay.

The state's failure to disclose all of its evidence in a timely fashion rendered the entire trial fundamentally unfair, said the appeals court. It also found 30-year sentence to be "grossly disproportionate to the crime."

State prosecutors are overworked and under pressure to win cases. When they cut corners on fairness, though, they deny defendants their chance at a fair trial. If you have been accused of a crime -- especially a sex offense -- you need someone on your side who will keep things on the level.

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