On December 1st, the White House released a 2023 addendum to its national AIDS strategy. The report calls for the modernization and reform of HIV criminalization laws. Washington took that step in 2020 by passing Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1551, reclassifying most HIV exposure cases as misdemeanors, and only in cases where actual HIV transmission occurs. In light of this reform and in his last year of office, there are calls for Washington State Governor Inslee to consider clemency for Anthony Whitfield, a Black heterosexual man who in 2004 was sentenced to 178 years for having sex with 17 women while HIV positive – the harshest HIV criminal penalty ever issued. The counts of first-degree assault are no longer crimes in Washington, and Whitfield is serving consecutive sentences for “violent crimes” that were never violent. He would not be convicted today.

As a veteran activist formerly with ACT-UP/San Francisco, I am constantly amazed by the disconnect between the public and the private face of HIV: what the public and experts believe, and what is found in the medical literature. From 1987 to 1995, the CDC and prominent AIDS charities ran a massive “awareness” campaign that knowingly and purposefully hyped the epidemic. In 1987, Oprah Winfrey told the public by 1990, 1 in five heterosexual Americans would die of AIDS. CDC officials knew at the time HIV was being confined to “fast track” urban gay men and recreational drug users. Although it is well-known the feared heterosexual AIDS epidemic never occurred, it is less well-known that most homosexuals were never impacted by HIV and AIDS – it was drug use, not sexuality, that predicted illness. In the wake of the CDC’s overhyped fear-driven hysteria, Washington passed its 1997 HIV criminalization law. A Neo-Nazi group used Whitfield’s mug shot in flyers saying Black male “AIDS predators” were out to infect white women.

Libertarian Nobel laureate Kary Mullis and libertarian emeritus Harvard professor Charles Thomas were founding members of “Reappraising AIDS,” which questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, and in June 1994, this was the cover story of Reason magazine. The popular Libertarian site lewrockwell.com has also regularly questioned the HIV=AIDS hypothesis. If Whitfield’s HIV seropositivity does not even cause disease, then his continued incarceration is even more unjust. In December 2023, the US Dept. of Justice made a finding of fact that Tennessee’s law criminalizing sex workers who were HIV positive to be a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Prosecutors alleged, but never proved, that Whitfield infected five to ten women – a claim Whitfield denies. At trial, Thurston County health official Dr. Diana Yu testified the risk of HIV transmission from Whitfield to his sexual partners was 4% per encounter. Prosecutors claimed Whitfield had over 1000 sexual encounters with 17 partners between 1996 and 2004. The sentencing judge cited Yu’s testimony as a finding on which to base Whitfield’s beyond-life sentence. Dr. Yu should have been challenged, raising questions about the competence of Whitfield’s legal counsel. In 2004, the official risk of heterosexual HIV transmission to a female was 1 in 1000 encounters, or 0.1% and 1 in 500 for anal sex.

Arbitrarily assuming a drug-driven sex spree involving 500 acts of vaginal intercourse with several women, the odds of a man transmitting HIV to ten women is about 1 to 10 trillion. In a 2014 military case, US v. Gutierrez, the judge found that even if the exposure risk is 1 in 500, transmission is unlikely to occur and does not meet the legal standard of assault – a precedent ending many military HIV exposure prosecutions.

After the trial, Dr. Yu provided blood samples to Texas researchers who promoted an HIV genomic link between Whitfield and his partners – convicting Whitfield of transmission in the press and falsely claiming the evidence had been used at trial. This experimental technique was challenged by other academics, and Whitfield never provided consent for his blood to be used in academic research. Legally, the misuse of medical specimens for academic research constitutes criminal battery, and HIV DNA fingerprinting has been described in The Lancet as “a myth.”

HIV exposure prosecutions date to 1986, and a 1990 federal law called the Ryan White CARE Act made federal funds available to states if they certified their criminal laws led to felony punishment of HIV exposure “assaults.” Washington state’s 1997 law was one of the harshest – making even disclosure of one’s HIV status not an affirmative defense. In 2010, the Obama administration’s national HIV Strategy found HIV criminalization laws to be counterproductive. Although the vast majority of HIV positive cases are reported among urban homosexual drug users, the majority of HIV prosecutions occur among Black heterosexual military servicemen. In the military, personal health information is often non-confidential.

The risk of prosecution is a deterrence to HIV testing, which public health experts often claim is beneficial. However, there are no controlled studies that show HIV testing improves health outcomes. A victim of prison rape, Whitfield tested positive at age 20 in 1992 and was given a death sentence. In 1993, Luc Montagnier, who would win the Nobel prize for the discovery of HIV stated, “psychological factors are critical for supporting immune function. If you suppress this support by telling someone he is condemned to die, your words alone will have condemned him.”

Is it unsurprising Whitfield turned to drugs and sex in his “final” days? Far more deadly were the recreational drugs used by his partners. Washington has a mandatory treatment law, and with modern HIV medicine, treated HIV positives are considered non-infectious. Although mandatory treatment of HIV positives based on junk medicine is very dangerous policy, it is better than a life-sentence in prison. The reality is anyone engaging in consensual sex has to accept the risks and consequences.

Whitfield is not a danger and should be set free.

The opinions shared here do not necessarily represent the official position of the Libertarian Party. These editorial articles have been submitted by Libertarians across the country, and featuring these topics does not represent an endorsement of the content therein.

The opinions shared here do not necessarily represent the official position of the Libertarian Party. These editorial articles have been submitted by Libertarians across the country, and featuring these topics does not represent an endorsement of the content therein.