I really couldn’t have imagined the hearing going any better.
The room was packed, standing-room-only in the gallery, nearly every one of the 19 (!) committee members were present.
A Republican from the rural bootheel sat next to a Democrat from the big city of St. Louis, and together Reps. Holly Rehder and Tracy McCreery introduced their bills to modernize Missouri’s outdated and harmfully inaccurate HIV-specific criminal laws (HBs 167 & 166, respectively).
The acting chair asked of the gallery, who was there to testify on behalf of these bills, and hands shot up, a dozen or more. He then asked who was there to testify against…and nothing. Not a single person testified in opposition. What followed was remarkable testimony from folks across the spectrum.
First up was a name that advocates working to change these laws across the nation have come to know – and not really in a good way. You see, a few years ago, out of St. Charles, MO, a young man named Michael Johnson was tried and convicted under these laws we’re trying to change, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison! (Johnson eventually won an appeal and upon retrial took a plea deal and is set to be paroled this October.) The St. Charles County Prosecutor was and is Tim Lohmar, and if you ask a lot of advocates, he’s the bad guy in the story of Michael Johnson.
Lohmar is now the President of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (MAPA). This could be troublesome. Legislators would want to know what prosecutors think about changing these laws. And having the guy who prosecuted Michael at the helm could be a problem– unless it’s not. Over the course of the last year or two, we’ve reached out to Lohmar, and he’s been working with bill sponsor Rep. Rehder. As a result, last week, MAPA voted in favor of supporting HB 167. Prosecutor Lohmar himself was in Jefferson City to testify in favor of modernizing HIV criminalization bills. He said the national attention was embarrassing, and that he felt hamstrung by the current laws. He admitted to prior ignorance and said the “time is now” to change these laws and that no prosecutor wanted to use the existing statutes … that they needed better tools.
This kind of progress is emblematic of our work. Our mission statement talks about advocacy based in civic leadership, research, and education. By building relationships with key stakeholders, investing in educating them on facts generated by thoughtful research, and by bringing everyday Missourians, the folks most impacted by these policies, into the room, and into the conversation we are empowering civic leaders.
Legislators learned that saliva doesn’t transmit HIV but is criminalized in people living with HIV (PLHIV), and they heard that from Molly whose two parents died AIDS-related deaths, not just because of the science proves it, but, as she said, “I’m living proof. Because my parents would kiss me goodnight, up until the day they died, and I’m fine [tests negative for HIV].”
The House Health & Mental Health Policy Committee heard in written and oral testimony from disability rights advocates, PLHIV including a man who has been incarcerated under these antiquated laws, peer educators, executive directors of AIDS service organizations, clergy, an alderwoman, a health department administrator, and, in addition to MAPA, and also the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Missouri Public Health Association. The lawmakers asked thoughtful questions and acknowledged the courage of those who came forward to testify. I believe we have momentum on our side.
And check out the MO HIV Justice Coalition Facebook page for events next week like Advocacy Day and more.
Staffer for MO HIV Justice Coalition