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Wednesday 7 October 2009

US: Military court sends Naval officer to prison for unprotected sex with disclosure

A US military court has sentenced a 37-year-old HIV-positive Naval officer to three months' in military prison after he pleaded guilty to having unprotected sex with disclosure with two women. The man, an aviation electronics technician who had been in the Navy for 18 years, was also given a bad-conduct discharge and demoted to seaman recruit.

No, you aren't misreading this. A man has lost his job, his reputation and his liberty for the next three months, after being court martialled for having sex with two women (one of whom is his ex-wife) who consented to unprotected sex.

Clearly, this man's lawyer, Greg McCormack (a civilian lawyer), and the military judge, Cmdr. Tierney Carlos, have not done their homework. It took me less than an hour to discover previous US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) judgements that call into question the aggravated assault charge that Petty Officer 1st Class Steven R. Franklin pleaded guilty to.

First, the facts of the case, as reported in The Virginian-Pilot.

The charges stemmed from Franklin's ignoring written and oral orders not to have unprotected sex. He also was compelled to advise sexual partners that he was HIV-positive and that condoms are not guaranteed to stop the spread of the virus. Franklin, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2003, was reminded of the restrictions every time he visited the HIV clinic at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, he told the judge. He also signed an order from his commanding officer at the Aviation Intermediate Maintenance Depot in Norfolk in November 2007 pledging to meet those conditions.

Within a few weeks of signing that document, though, Franklin began a new sexual relationship. The couple used condoms for a few weeks but later stopped at Franklin's request. After the woman learned of his diagnosis, she continued having unprotected sex with him for a few more weeks, according to testimony. The second woman - now his ex-wife - testified at an earlier hearing that she also had unprotected sex with Franklin after learning he was HIV-positive. Neither woman has contracted HIV, according to testimony.

The problem is Cmdr. Carlos' interpretation of Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (assault with a dangerous weapon) as it applies to criminal sexual HIV exposure.

Regardless of the women's actions, the law does not allow people to consent to a sexual act that could result in "grievous bodily harm," Carlos explained. Unprotected consensual sex became aggravated assault because of the likelihood it would cause serious harm or death.

That used to be the case, but not any more.

Now, in military law, you cannot consent to aggravated assault. This is due to a 1997 CAAF decision (US v. Bygrave) which held that, in this case, because both women Bygrave had sex with were on active duty there was a compelling Government interest in protecting the health of military personnel negating their informed consent to the risk of HIV transmission.

But a 2006 ruling, upheld in 2008, found that unprotected sex (without disclosure) might not necessarily be aggravated assault if the HIV-positive individual has a low viral load.

Until 2006, the military court's position on criminal sexual HIV exposure can be summarised in this quote from US vs. Upham (US Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals, 2006)
A person who wilfully and deliberately exposes a person to seminal fluid containing HIV without informing that person of his HIV positive status and without using a condom has acted in a manner likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.

A specific intent to infect a victim with the HIV virus [sic] or to expose the victim to it is not required for this offense. The accused need only have intended to engage in unprotected sexual intercourse to have committed this offense.

The fact that the alleged victim may have consented to sexual intercourse with the accused is not a defencse to aggravated assault. One cannot consent to an act that is likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.
In 2008, US v. Upham reached the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) which upheld the earlier appeal.

The case of Lieutenant Upham involved him having unprotected sex with a fellow (female) officer (Capt B) without disclosing his HIV status. He testified in his original court martial that since his viral load was low (but detectable)
"there was not a risk of zero transmission," but testified that he did not believe that he had exposed Cpt B to a fatal disease: "I do not believe that she was going to be infected."
(US v. Upham, CAAF 2008, p5)
The medical witness testified
that given Appelant's low viral load, "I cannot say he's not infectious" (R. at 441-42), but that [Capt B]'s risk of contracting HIV was very low (R. at 465)
(US v Upham, US Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals 2006, p 3)
However, when the judge gave intructions for the jury he said
A person who wilfully and deliberately exposes a person to seminal fluid containing HIV without informing that person of his HIV positive status and without using a condom has acted in a manner likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.

The defense objected to this on the grounds that

"these instructions say that [Appellant] is per se guilty of aggravated assault." The military judge overruled the objection, and said that instruction "accurately state[s] the that exist[s] today." (US v Upham, CAAF 2008, p6)
In the 2006 appeal, the court concluded

that the error [of giving this instruction] was prejudicial as to the aggravated assault charge: "Given the medical evidence, it is not inconceivable that the court could have had a reasonable doubt on whether the means employed was likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm." (US v Upham, CAAF 2008, p6)

The legal arguments are long and complex (maybe even too long and complex for me, a non-lawyer), but what I think they are essentially saying is that the risk of HIV transmission with a low (but not even undetectable) viral load might not have been "likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm" and the jury should have been allowed to decide this rather been told that HIV exposure without disclosure (regardless of other facts) is always aggravated assault.

In the end, Lieutenant Upham was found guilty of the lesser charge of "assault consummated by a battery" and had his prison sentence reduced from eight months to four months. In March 2008, the CAAF upheld this appeal. (However, a similar case was rejected by the C.A.A.F. in May 2008, reported on my blog here, and also discussed on another blog concerned with military law here.)

This is all revelant to the current case because The Virginian-Pilot reports

Franklin...told the judge his HIV is well-controlled and the virus is no longer detectable in certain medical tests.

So, his lawyer should have asked, and/or the judge should known, to consider having the charge reduced from aggravated assault to assault consummated by a battery.

And if there is no aggravated assault, than you can consent, particularly since neither of the women that Franklin had sex with were military personnel, negating the compelling Government interest.

Since Franklin pleaded guilty, it's not clear that he is allowed to appeal. Let's hope he, or his lawyer, reads this blog, and finds a way to re-open this egregious example of Government intrusion into the private lives of individuals.

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