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HIV a Murder Weapon in Canadian Court

April 08, 2009 12:00 PM
by Shannon Firth
Did an HIV-positive man act out of carelessness or cruel intentions? A Canadian jury calls it murder, but some AIDS activists disagree.

The Trial and Verdict

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On Saturday, April 4, 52-year-old Johnson Aziga was found guilty of murder by a Montreal jury for not sharing his HIV status with sexual partners, two of whom later died from AIDS-related illnesses.

According to prosecutors, this marks the first case in Canada, and possibly the world, where an HIV-positive individual has been convicted of murder for failing to inform partners of his status.

Aziga, a former government research analyst from Uganda, was found guilty of 10 counts of aggravated assault and one count of attempted aggravated sexual assault, in addition to the two murder counts. He infected seven women; four other partners did not contract the virus.

The Crown argued that Aziga infected the women with “‘slow-acting poison’ that destroyed their immune systems … leading to their cancers and to their deaths.”

During opening arguments in October 2008, prosecutor Tim Power explained the assault and murder charges to the jury, saying that hearing the charges, “One may immediately think of a violent rape scenario,” reported CTV.ca.

He explained, though Aziga may not have been physically aggressive, the sex was not considered consensual because the women weren’t aware he was HIV positive.

Aziga’s defense lawyers argued that he had depression, a brain disorder, post-traumatic stress, as well as an alcohol problem, making him incapable of deliberately plotting a crime, reported Canada.com.

The online daily reported that jurors heard testimony that Aziga ignored several warnings and an order from the Health Protection and Promotion Act to wear condoms and tell partners of his status.

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Jurors were also shown videotape testimony from both of the deceased. In one video, a woman known as S.B. told an officer that Aziga never told her he was HIV positive, and if she had known, she would not have had sex with him. S.B. died three weeks after the video was filmed, The Canadian Press reported.

Alison Symington, with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, told CTV.ca that Aziga’s trial would heighten the stigma toward HIV-positive individuals.

Following the verdict, Symington called for a public debate; “Do we as a society think not telling someone you’re living with a sexually transmitted infection is the equivalent of murder?” reported Canada.com.

Aziga’s attorney, Munyonzwe Hamalengwa, who blamed “a media blitz” for the jury’s decision, told The Globe & Mail that the verdict would prevent HIV-positive people from being tested, “in order to protect the knowledge that they don’t have it,” and from sharing their status with partners.

Crown Attorney Karen Shea countered, “[When an] individual is engaging in conduct knowing full well that he is endangering the health and lives of others it’s not only appropriate but completely warranted to invoke the criminal law.”

CTV.ca cited three other cases where HIV positive men were imprisoned on sexual assault charges in the last three years, including the case of football player Trevis Smith.

Aziga’s defense attorneys say they plan to appeal after his May 7 sentencing. First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence, without possibility of parole, for 25 years.

Opinion & Analysis: Debating the verdict

In an editorial for the Toronto Star, Rosie DiManno said Aziga was “dishonest and duplicitous, thinking only of his immediate sexual gratification.”

DiManno also cited portions of Aziga’s argument from a period in which he served as his own defense: “This is an issue in which it takes two to tango … Somebody may be … fraudulent and so mean, but it takes two. It's unfortunate, some people are being reported dead.”

Writing for the McGill Reporter, Mark A. Wainberg, the director of the McGill AIDS Centre at the Jewish General Hospital, says that the media hype surrounding cases like Aziga’s empower HIV denialists and discourages people from being tested.

Wainberg notes that trials like Aziga’s “might even have the perverse effect of increasing HIV transmission by people who do not know or don’t want to know that they are infected.”

Related Topics: U.S. disclosure cases; High school students fear HIV outbreak

In 2007 Nerve magazine, said that 34 states had disclosure laws.

The article profiled Anthony Whitfield, a Washington man imprisoned for life after infecting partners with the HIV virus. Like Aziga, Whitfield was ordered by city officials to disclose his status. When he didn’t, police charged him with “criminally exposing others to HIV.”

The article also cited a University of Connecticut study finding of 316 cases between 1986 and 2001 where HIV-positive individuals were found guilty of nondisclosure.

In October 2008, the St. Louis County Health Department in Montana said that 50 Normandy High School students might have been exposed to the HIV virus after someone potentially associated with the school tested positive for the virus.

According to The Associated Press the identity of the person with HIV was not made public because of privacy laws. The method of transmission was also kept private.
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