An Out-of-the-Ordinary HIV Criminalization Case Spawns an Extraordinary Activist
by Chip Alfred
[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ulie Graham is not a typical defendant in an HIV criminal prosecution. The perky, parochial school graduate and licensed practical nurse from Central Pennsylvania never imagined she would be at the center of a traumatic legal battle that played out in the local news. “I’ve had hit after hit after hit over the last two years,” she said.
The nightmare began in 2013 for Graham, then twenty-five, when state police issued a warrant for her arrest. She was charged with four crimes, including two felonies, based on allegations by a man she had dated who claimed she didn’t disclose her HIV status. The man who made the complaint against her did not contract HIV. To avoid being hauled out in handcuffs, Graham surrendered to authorities and posted $25,000 in bail.
The charges included sexual assault and aggravated assault, each carrying maximum sentences of ten years behind bars. The other charges were simple assault and reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors. Defense attorney Lawrence Krasner, who represented Graham, succeeded in getting three of the four charges against Graham dismissed. AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania (ALPP) Executive Director Ronda Goldfein and Staff Attorney Adrian Lowe convinced the Lebanon Valley District Attorney not to prosecute on the remaining charge of reckless endangerment if Graham completed the requirements of a special rehabilitation program in Pennsylvania for first-time offenders. So Julie Graham isn’t going to jail and she won’t have a criminal record, but her life has been torn apart by the repercussions from the case.
“There is often tremendous collateral damage from these types of cases,” says Goldfein. “Here is a person who got a stellar criminal defense lawyer, got some feisty advocates for support, but it’s not all behind her.” Graham’s private medical information and her accuser’s claims were revealed on the front page of her local newspaper, The Patriot-News. After the story appeared online at www.pennlive.com, more details about Graham were posted by readers, including where she worked, where she went to high school, along with some hateful comments about her. “I received a lot of harassment,” she recalls. “People said a lot of bad things about me. But having it exposed to everybody at work, that’s what was threatening to ruin my career.” Graham was suspended for a year without pay from her job at Lebanon VA Medical Center soon after the allegations came to light. Goldfein says that at every turn Graham’s employer was not supporting her. Instead, they were punishing her—trying to terminate her and challenging her applications for unemployment benefits. (With the help of ALPP, Graham is now back on the job, but still fighting for her full benefits.) “It is absolutely wrong the way the VA treated me,” says Graham.
“When these HIV criminalization cases occur, I want people to know you can fight it,” she declares. “People need to be educated about the disease. Once you’re educated, there’s so much power in that.” After going through all of this, Graham is using her experience “to become an advocate and share my story to help others. It’s part of my healing process, and it’s helping me deal with my status.” She’s become an outspoken activist who’s actively involved with organizations including SERO Project and Positive Women’s Network-USA (PWN-USA). Graham is also a scheduled speaker at the HIV Is Not A Crime II: National Training Academy (hivisnotacrime.com) on May 17–20, 2016, at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
“I’m so incredibly proud of Julie,” says Goldfein. “She was forced into an awful situation and has risen to the challenge. She goes to Washington with her parents to talk about this! That’s a whole new level of courage.” Graham is optimistic that building awareness around her experience can impact the broader conversation. “I’m hopeful for some change in all of this. I hope that by telling my story someday there will be an opportunity given to me to make it national.” According to Goldfein, Graham just might have that chance. ALPP has filed a federal complaint on her behalf with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that her employer’s actions constitute discrimination against a person with HIV.
As for the larger issue of HIV criminalization, laws and sentencing guidelines vary widely from state to state. A federal bill to reform outdated laws that stigmatize people living with HIV, the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act (H.R.1586) sponsored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) [A&U, October 2012], was first introduced in 2013 and reintroduced in 2015. According to The Center for HIV Law & Policy, thirty-two states and two U.S. territories currently have HIV-specific criminal laws. In many states, people living with HIV can still be (and are) arrested and prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, spitting, or scratching. Most of these laws were enacted during the AIDS panic of the 1990s. Despite all the advances in HIV treatment and prevention since then, only one of these states has changed its law. In 2014, Iowa became the first state to revise its HIV-specific statute. The revised law, which also encompasses several other infectious diseases, creates a tiered sentencing system that takes into consideration whether there was intent to infect another person, whether there was any significant risk of transmission, and whether transmission occurred.
In Pennsylvania, which does not have an HIV-specific statute, general criminal laws are cited to charge people living with HIV for conduct that wouldn’t be criminal, except for their HIV status. For Graham, who was diagnosed in 2011 and became undetectable soon afterward, the risk of her infecting a male partner through vaginal intercourse is, of course, extremely low. Goldfein points out the issue in states like Pennsylvania is not about legislation, but about the way HIV-related cases are applied to existing laws. She’s encouraged by the meeting with Lebanon County prosecutors, which involved a candid conversation about consensual sexual behavior, risk reduction, and the counter-productive impact that HIV criminalization cases can have.
“Criminalization laws only put another barrier to prevention,” Goldfein remarks. “In every scenario, you’re causing fear in the hearts of people with HIV because of their virus.” She contends that these cases discourage rather than encourage people to learn their status. If a person doesn’t know their status, they can’t legally be charged with not disclosing it to their partners. They are also less likely to change risky behaviors. “This is a huge roadblock to preventing HIV transmission and to getting people in treatment.” ALPP recently joined forces with SERO Project, PWN-USA-Philadelphia and a statewide coalition of advocates to lobby the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, arguing that criminal laws should be grounded in science, not on outdated assumptions, stigma, and fear.
To overcome the stigma and fear she encountered, Julie Graham finds her strength in a higher power. “The mistakes you make, you learn from them. There are hurdles and bumps along the way. It’s all part of the journey. In my case, it’s a chance to turn back to God and fulfill his will.”
A&U welcomes your HIV Criminalization story ideas or suggestions. Please contact Chip Alfred, email@example.com.
For more information: SERO Project: www.seroproject.com; Positive Women’s Network-USA: www.pwnusa.wordpress.com; AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania: www.aidslawpa.org; The Center for HIV Law & Policy: www.hivlawandpolicy.org; Lambda Legal: www.lambdalegal.org/issues/hiv.
Chip Alfred is A&U’s Editor at Large based in Philadelphia.