Michael Johnson was released from prison 25 years early after a ‘fundamentally unfair’ trial. Now he wants to help others.
When Michael Johnson was last a free man six years ago, he had a support structure, a plan for his life and dreams that he hoped would take him to the Olympics.
Walking out of prison earlier this summer, some of that support structure had disappeared and some of it had been replaced. The plan for his life has been forced into a detour.
Yet his dreams and aspirations have survived a six-year ordeal that may have broken others.
“I’m doing my passion now, which motivates me,” he told Outsports from his friend’s home in Indiana. “And as long as I’m doing what makes me happy and motivates me — helping others and being a coach — if I can go to the Olympics and be successful, that’s my dream.”
Johnson was released from prison earlier this summer after a court said he had been the target of a “fundamentally unfair” trial that sentenced him to over 30 years for failing to disclose his HIVstatus to sexual partners — a crime in Missouri. The sentence was longer than some receive for murder, and the severity of the punishment had brought pointed criticism to laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV.
The case also drove national headlines in part because it stoked the very fear and prejudice that was being highlighted by the then-burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement. Johnson was, after all, a black man accused of giving HIV to mostly white men in the Bible Belt.
While Johnson admits the last six years were “very, very hard,” the former wrestler at Lindenwood University, now 27, points every question asked of him to the future.
“I’m happy to be home and to be free.”
Looking toward his future as a coach and athlete
To the extent he can, Johnson’s plan is the same as it was in 2013: Finish college, take his own wrestling as far as he can take it, and get into coaching.
“I always wanted to pursue the Olympics in wrestling,” he said, “and I still want to do that.”
Even if he never stands on an Olympic medal podium, Johnson is intent on giving back to kids as a coach. Returning to school, he hopes to earn a masters in strength training and conditioning, as well as utilizing all he’s learned in his wrestling career.
He also feels he can help young people navigate the world of being an athlete. Johnson credits his sports participation with overcoming dyslexia to succeed as a student and earn a spot as a student at Lindenwood Univ.
“Sport helped motivate me to do well in class. I had to be good in school. That’s why they call us a student-athlete.”
Johnson also feels he has life lessons from his ordeal with the law that can help other student-athletes navigate a world around them that he says too often wants to use the body of the athlete, and ignore the person’s heart and mind. Lessons about whom to trust, and how to identify ulterior motives, can be more important to a high-level NCAA athlete as anything they would learn in calculus.
“Every student-athlete goes through this,” Johnson said. “We work hard to be physically fit. And we end up with bodies that people find attractive. A lot of people want to see the cover of the book and not read the book. I wish more people took the time to get to know the person and not just a body to be used.”
Part of his path toward his college, wrestling and coaching goals now includes finishing parole in Indiana, where he’ll check in regularly with a parole officer.
Another of the added hurdles that he could now face as he embarks on a quest to follow his dreams is the stigma attached to a very public incarceration, in addition to biases about sexual conduct and the stigma connected by some with HIV.
Johnson said he’s used to dealing with people’s biases.
“There’s always going to be a stigma. I’m a black man living in America. So you just have to believe in yourself. If I believe in myself, that will motivate someone else to believe in me, too.”
Helping him navigate all of this is Akil Patterson, the community advocate who has been a friend and mentor to Johnson throughout this entire six-year journey. Patterson, a former college football player and competitive wrestler, has spent his adult life advocating for disenfranchised communities including people of color, people living with HIV and the LGBTQ community.
Pushing for more education
Those six years in custody did give Johnson perspective on one new life goal: pushing for more education about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
“High school kids need to be educated on HIV and AIDS so they’re not afraid of people with it,” Johnson said. “They need to understand what the doctors are trying to tell people, but there are people who don’t want it to get out there. We need to tell young people that HIV isn’t a death sentence.”
The mortality rate for people living with HIV has plummeted since the height of the epidemic 30 years ago. In addition, the creation and distribution of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), like Truvada, can help guard against infection despite exposure to HIV.
In short, contracting HIV is not considered in the United States to be the death sentence it was when laws criminalizing its transmission were written.
For Johnson, this means that the criminalization of HIV infection, which in his case left him staring at possibly decades behind bars, is based on medicine from a bygone era and is now outdated.
“You have a lot of people who don’t know anything about it, and they let the fear control them,” Johnson said of policymakers. “The HIV laws we have now don’t represent the science we have in our country. We need to repeal and replace these laws. They’re not doing the job they originally thought they were going to to.”
As he pursues his dreams, Johnson is committed to telling his story to as many people as possible in hopes of opening eyes and opening minds.
“If people learn from my story, they can be better than me. If they learn from what I’ve been through, then they will educate themselves and they will take care of their own health.