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Iowa Supreme Court reverses conviction in HIV criminalization case

Iowa Supreme Court reverses conviction in HIV criminalization case
DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday threw out the conviction of a man who pleaded guilty to criminal transmission of HIV, a victory to activists who say laws in many states are outdated and based on fear instead of medical science.

Nick Rhoades
Nick Rhoades

Nick Rhoades, 39, of Plainfield, had appealed his 2009 conviction, claiming his attorney was ineffective by letting him plead guilty when there was an inadequate factual basis to support the plea.

The court’s ruling overturns the Iowa Court of Appeals, which had affirmed a Black Hawk County judge’s conviction based on Rhoades’ plea.

“This is a step away from fear and a step toward embracing reason and science and medicine and we’re just thrilled about it,” said Christopher Clark, one of Rhoades’ attorneys who works for Lambda Legal, a gay rights organization based in New York.

The ruling followed a decision by the Legislature in May to revise Iowa’s infectious disease transmission law, making people eligible for 25-year sentences only if they intend to transmit a disease without someone’s knowledge. That change was prompted largely by the Rhoades case.

The new law included a clause that will retroactively remove Rhoades and others convicted under the previous statute from required sex offender registration.

Rhoades had been sentenced to 25 years in prison and was required to register as a sex offender for life since Iowa’s law made HIV transmission a felony. After he appealed the sentence, the district court judge suspended it and placed him on probation for five years.

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In the ruling, six of seven justices found there was insufficient factual basis to support Rhoades’ plea and returned the case to district court. Prosecutors must prove a factual basis existed for the plea. If they cannot, Rhoades must be allowed to withdraw his plea.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Black Hawk County Attorney Thomas J. Ferguson would pursue prosecution further. A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s office, which handled the appeals, said that decision is up to Ferguson.

“We anticipate that the county attorney will re-evaluate the case in light of the court’s decision and our office will provide any assistance of that review if requested,” said Geoff Greenwood.

Ferguson did not immediately respond to messages.

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The court’s majority opinion written by Justice David Wiggins concluded intimate contact between Rhoades and the man he had sex with does not establish the necessary factual basis that an exchange of bodily fluid took place or that Rhoades intentionally exposed his partner in a way that could have transmitted HIV.

Nick Rhoades
Nick Rhoades

Rhoades had sex with a man he met in an Internet chat room. His attorneys argued there was no exchange of bodily fluid and the use of a condom indicates there was no intent to expose the partner to HIV.

Assistant Attorney General Kevin Cmelik has argued that intentional exposure is simply the act of having sexual contact with HIV present. Rhoades had been diagnosed with HIV in 1998 and has undergone antiviral treatment, which doctors said left the HIV viral load in his system undetectable.

The court found that intimate contact itself is not enough to establish a factual basis that an exchange of bodily fluid took place or that Rhoades intentionally exposed his partner.

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Justice Bruce Zager wrote in a dissenting opinion that he believes there was enough evidence to support the guilty plea and conviction, based on “the acknowledgement by Rhoades that he had unprotected oral sex with the victim and his admission of intimate contact with the victim, combined with reasonable inferences based on common sense.”

Clark said Rhoades’ interest now is to have his conviction overturned so he is no longer branded a felon.

Thirty-nine states have HIV-specific criminal statutes or have brought HIV-related criminal charges resulting in more than 160 prosecutions in the United States in the past four years, Clark said.

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