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Outdated Laws Make Life Hell for People with HIV

They've failed for decades, since the prospect of criminalization scares people away from getting tested.

by Diana Spechler
Mar 2 2017, 5:21pm

In 2008, Robert Suttle's life was calm. He was 29 years old and happy with his job as an assistant clerk at the Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeals. He had good friends and enjoyed his social life. One night, he went home from a bar with a guy named Joe*. According to Suttle, he told Joe that he was HIV-positive. Neither of them had a condom, so they waited until their next date to have sex. They slept together a few more times before Suttle ended the relationship. Shortly thereafter, he received a phone call that would wreck his life: Joe and their mutual friend were on the line together, accusing Suttle of sleeping with Joe without disclosing his HIV status. (To Suttle's knowledge, Joe's status remained negative.)

That was the first of many menacing phone calls. "He kept telling me he was going to press charges," Suttle says. "I kept trying to reason with him. But reasoning didn't work." Eventually, Joe made good on his threats. The police showed up at the Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeals and arrested Suttle in front of his colleagues. With no hard evidence, the case became "he said/he said" and landed, as it usually does, in favor of the HIV-negative party. Suttle's conviction—intentionally exposing Joe to AIDS—meant six months in prison and a spot on the sex-offender registry. This was his first run-in with the criminal justice system, but suddenly, it seemed, Suttle had no future: What would become of a black, gay, HIV-positive sex offender and felon? Who would ever give him a chance?

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