Alex Blaze

Surprise: Texas prosecutors don't like homeless poz man

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 04, 2008 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics, The Movement
Tags: HIV/AIDS, LGBT homeless, mental illness, William Campbell, Willie Campbell

Even a court of law in 2008 can get caught up in AIDS panic (via BTB):

Prosecutors convinced a Dallas County jury this week that HIV-positive saliva should be considered a deadly weapon.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and countless doctors say no one has ever contracted the virus from spit.

And that's why several AIDS advocacy groups and many individuals contend that the 35-year sentence Willie Campbell received Wednesday for spitting into the mouth and eye of a Dallas police officer was excessive.

Maybe it's the current state of sex education under the Bush admin, but you'd think that people who graduated from law school would know that HIV can't be transmitted through saliva. Apparently not.

Campbell got 35 years because, according to the police report, while being picked up for public intoxication (read: Existing While Homeless), he spat on the officers and said he had HIV.

The prosecution's logic here is ridiculous. They say that anything with any risk of death is a deadly weapon:

But Dallas County prosecutor Jenni Morse, who handled Mr. Campbell's case, said any risk level is sufficient for the deadly weapon finding used during the trial.

"No matter how minuscule, there is some risk," said Ms. Morse. "That means there is the possibility of causing serious bodily injury or death," the legal definition of a deadly weapon.

Considering that saliva has never been shown to transmit HIV, this is a patently ridiculous claim. The other prosecutor says it's about intent:

"If you look at the facts of this case, it was clear that the defendant intended to cause serious bodily injury," said Mr. Watkins. "There's an intent factor.

The guy was also drunk at the time. Considering his behavior and that he was homeless, there's a good chance he's mentally ill as well. Are they taking his word while drunk as sound medical evidence that HIV can be transmitted through saliva over the studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control?

But this isn't about risk, since there are lots of activities with a whole lot more risk of killing someone that don't get 35 years in prison. And considering how Texas requires statewide abstinence-only education, they can't really be in a position to judge others when it comes to STD transmission.

This is about the way our society treats the homeless, as well as the panic that still exists around HIV. Instead of getting treatment and a home, he's getting prison because some people just didn't want to see him drunk in the street but also didn't want to help him get back on his feet again.

In fact, the prosecutors pretty much admit just that:

"You can see why we thought that we needed to get this guy off the streets," said Jenni Morse, who prosecuted the current case.

Off the streets, but not with treatment or an appropriate shelter. It's just sick.

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Not to mention the fact that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice refuses to allow condoms in prison.

And we're still supposed to believe this is about preventing the spread of HIV?

I so fucking hate Texas. I can't move out of this damn state quickly enough.

This policy is actually nothing new. The draconian policy about "spitting being a violent assault" for an HIV positive person has been around for many years, and has been used to leverage similar over-the-top convictions in other states besides Texas. It would be good to see the right case go to the U.S. Supreme Court, so it could be overturned.

You didn't mention the fact that he has done this before. And it's not just spit, he bites also. He also had 20 or so prior convictions for a variety of crimes.

Also, it is my understanding that under Texas law, deadly weapon is defines as something CAPABLE of causing serious bodily injury or death. If there is anyone out there more familiar with Texas law than me, please correct me. I think that when you consider the possibility of blood in the saliva, it going into an open wound, etc, I bet you can find a pretty distinguished expert who would say there is SOME chance, however small, of infection.

I give this not as a defense, but as an explanation.

And I think simply dismissing the question of intent is a dangerous precendent. That would be like a robber saying that he thought he had loaded the gun, but didn't, so he should be found not guilty. It seems that he certainly thought himself capable of passing HIV this way.

I would also like to know if the defense put up their own expert to refute this.

I also didn't actually see any confirmation that he was mentally ill, though it seems that he was acting strange during the trial, but then was apparently found competent to stand trial or never asked for a review.

Alex, thanks for posting this -- it's horrifying.

It seems that he certainly thought himself capable of passing HIV this way.
I disagree. I think his intent was to scare the police officer, in which he seems to have succeeded.

This case is one of those situations where a jury trial, of uninformed and easily scared jurors, is a mistake. Campbell's attorney should have either made strong effort to inform the jury or else push for a bench trial.

I think the sentence is a miscarriage of justice.

This case reminds me of the motel owner, a year or two ago, who refused to allow an HIV infected child to swim in the motel pool.

I would think that 25 years into this endemic disease, that people might have heard how it is transmitted! I am constantly amazed at the ignorance of the public.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 5, 2008 6:03 AM

It is a "catch 22" situation really. If he has had a pattern of 20 prior incidents as Chuck has said this individual has a problem called chronic drug and alcohol abuse. Many times these people are unwilling to receive help if offered. I recall a similar incident occurring in Minneapolis years ago, but the party involved was referred for treatment ultimately which is to Minnesota's credit.

His public defender is not going to do the best job that can be done for him.

Then there are the rights, that also deserve to be considered, of children, disabled, and less strong people confronted on a public street by someone acting in an aggressive manner. I am sure he scared many more people than he injured. How do we protect their rights?

I am conflicted by this because as awful as his situation is I need to ask you guys how many of you have taken someone in off the streets and given them a meal and an unmolested place to sleep (it off)? None of them would ever let me drive them to a shelter or try and find some rehab. They chose to go back to their spot on the street. Homeless people were not uncommon in the neighborhood I called home. It is horrifying as Mattilda says, but it is horrifying for them every damn day.

Thanks for responding, Chuck. I'm not saying he did nothing wrong, but 35 years seems long and saliva, even from a poz man, isn't a deadly weapon. While it says that it has to be even remotely possible, and open wound and all that stuff, there has to be a certain amount of panic to even make the connection in the first place.

The intent question is different, because there's nothing to indicate that he thought he'd kill the officers with his spit, just that he was taunting. Moreover, to provide another analogy, if someone made a voodoo doll of a police officer and thought it would kill him, should she be put away like this? Some people are crazy, some people are idiots, and courts, IMHO that might require everything about Texas law to be shifted around, shouldn't validate stupidity.

Re mental illness, that's 100% speculation on my part, considering that most homeless people suffer from some form of mental illness (see link above) and his behavior.

But you're right - this case might be a whole lot more complicated than what I read in several articles.

Patricia, that would be great. I can't believe that we even need a high court to determine that saliva isn't a deadly weapon in the first place...

This isn't just a Texas thing. Most states have a similar law on the books. It's a felony here in Indiana to spit on an officer if you're HIV+ - assault with a deadly weapon.

Never underestimate the ignorance of a group of people ruled by fear.

Edward Fox Edward Fox | June 5, 2008 12:41 PM

The sentence seems, on the basis of what is posted here, completely out of line.

But spitting is usually defined, in law, as assault. Maybe we disagree, but that is the law. Also what constitutes a deadly weapon in law is not simple. It seems that Texas leaves some of that up to the jury to decide. It is regrettable that so many people do not know how you contract HIV, but there is a long history of politicization of that information, and even today, many in the GLBT community, not to mention many in the medical community, remain ignorant.

On the question of whether saliva can transmit HIV, it is regrettable that people appeal to experts and the CDC for opinions. If our schools imparted any semblance of logical thinking to their students, everyone would realize that the proof that saliva does not transmit HIV is that if it did, we would all have it.

This point of law is similar to the fact that, in many states, a prostitute who is knowingly HIV-positive can be charged with attempted murder --- even if she/he informed the customer(s), and even if a condom or other commonly accepted protection was always used.

I think the bottom-line lesson here is that there are certain classes of individuals who will never be treated fairly (or scientifically) by the law, because the political forces to the contrary are so overwhelming. Any lawmaker who champions spitting or prostituting HIV-positives isn't likely to survive the next election. This is one of the failures of the democratic mechanism, and in a less than perfect world I'm afraid we have to live with it.