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Cleveland

He’s in an Ohio Prison for Exposing Someone to HIV - Even Though He Couldn’t Transmit the Virus

Ohio has six laws that criminalize living with HIV, leading to at least 200 prosecutions in recent years.

An illustration with a dark purple background featuring a map of Ohio shows a Black man with handcuffs and an orange jail jumpsuit turned toward an older, White male judge. On the left of the image is a representation of an HIV test.

Caymir Weaver kept his gaze forward and his jaw set as a county judge chastised him during an October court date.

“You disrespect everything that’s proper and moral and ethical,” Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge R. Scott Krichbaum told him.

Weaver was used to being judged for having HIV. He’d had it since he was born. But now he was facing time in prison for it.

This article was published in partnership with The Buckeye Flame.

Months earlier, the 22-year-old had reconnected with a high school friend. After chatting on social media, they hung out, and eventually, he gave her oral sex. Weaver thought his friend remembered he was living with HIV — he had been open about it his entire life — but after he reminded her, she got upset and called the police.

Prosecutors charged Weaver with felonious assault for not notifying his partner of his HIV status. He faced up to eight years in prison. It didn’t matter that there was “little to no risk” of transmitting the virus or that Weaver’s partner tested negative. But he was scared, so he took a plea deal. Prosecutors agreed not to argue for prison.

Now his fate was in the hands of a judge who was first elected in 1990, one year after Ohio made it a crime to expose a person to the virus. It was a time when an HIV diagnosis was basically a death sentence. Advancements in treatment now allow those with HIV to live full lives. The 71-year-old Krichbaum made it clear he still considered HIV lethal, and the law blunt. What Weaver did was “like shooting a gun and hitting somebody, and they survive,” Krichbaum said. “That's what this crime is.”

And for that, the judge decided Weaver belonged in prison for a year. Krichbaum tacked on an extra 30 days in the county jail to punish him for showing up a few minutes late and for being dressed in a white tracksuit and tennis shoes — an outfit Weaver bought for the hearing, but Krichbaum deemed inappropriate.

Weaver’s resolve broke. His attorney handed him a tissue before deputies took him away.

Weaver is serving his sentence at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. He has identified as male since high school but was assigned female at birth.

“It was hurtful how he spoke to me, how he treated me,” said Weaver, months later in a call from prison. “Like I was basically poison.”

A push to ‘modernize’ HIV laws

Across the country, there’s a push to repeal or update the types of laws that put Weaver in prison. Most of the laws were put on the books decades ago, fueled by fear and absent scientific understanding about how the virus is transmitted, and long before advances in HIV treatments.

Laws remain in place in 34 states. Thirteen states have repealed or modernized their HIV laws, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, a national legal policy and resource center working to decriminalize HIV. Illinois repealed its HIV criminal laws in 2021, with New Jersey following in 2022.

Ohio has six different laws that criminalize certain acts — including sex — for people living with HIV, or that substantially increase penalties for them, compared to people who do not have the virus.

There are no national reporting requirements that track the arrests or prosecutions. Most of the available information is collected by advocates or researchers. Until recently, it was unclear how often Ohio prosecutors charged people under the laws, which also apply to people living with viral hepatitis or tuberculosis.

Last month, Equality Ohio and the Ohio Health Modernization Movement released results of a three-year effort to count prosecutions in Ohio’s 88 counties. Compiling information from court dockets and public records requests to court clerks and prosecutors, the groups tallied 214 cases prosecuted over a six-year period.

About a third of the cases were like Weaver’s: felonious assault, which carries the most severe penalty of any HIV-related charge. More than half of the cases were for “harassment” with a bodily substance, most often involving law enforcement, corrections officers or healthcare workers. Ohio law doesn’t distinguish between bodily fluids that can transmit HIV, such as blood, and those that do not, such as saliva, urine or feces.

Ohio’s laws don’t require HIV transmission

Ohio’s laws are among the most punitive when it comes to HIV criminalization, said Jada Hicks, staff attorney for the Center for HIV Law and Policy. That includes stiff penalties for failing to disclose HIV status — regardless of whether the virus is or can be transmitted. In some cases, the law also requires sex offender registration.

“Ohio takes a more carceral approach to HIV than a public health approach,” Hicks said.

Mahoning County Prosecutor Gina DeGenova said it isn’t her job to weigh in on what the law should be. It’s to enforce the law as it is currently written, as her office did in Weaver’s case. DeGenova said with updates to technology and knowledge on how infections are transmitted, it “makes absolute sense to review the status of these laws.”

Ohio’s laws that criminalize living with HIV were first passed in 1989. That year, AIDS-related complications were the second leading cause of death among men between 25-44 years.

The original laws did not specifically reference HIV status, instead requiring prosecutors to prove that having sex while living with HIV was akin to carrying a deadly weapon.

Several high-profile examples of HIV transmission dominated the country’s attention in the 1990s, notably the New York case of Nushawn Williams, who had sex with over 100 women.

Following the media panic caused by cases like that of Williams, many states updated their HIV laws. In 2000, Ohio’s laws were changed to more specifically add HIV status into the language and criminalize exposure, not transmission.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have since warned that laws criminalizing HIV exposure are ineffective and can discourage testing.

A childhood spent managing HIV

Weaver was born with HIV in New Jersey in 2001, as some states were sharpening their HIV laws and ramping up prosecutions. His mother died of a heroin overdose shortly after his younger brother was born.

“I don’t really remember her,” Weaver said.

He bounced around to seven different foster homes and was separated from his four older brothers before being adopted at age 3. His new family also included a sibling set of five from Texas, adopted by — as he calls them — his parents.

From what Weaver was told by his parents, his birth mother was living with HIV and took antiretroviral medicines while pregnant with his older brothers, all of whom were born without HIV. Weaver and his younger brother were born with the virus, but his brother — and not Caymir — was given antiretroviral treatments and his status reverted to negative. Weaver was never told why.

As a child, Weaver's family made regular trips to Cleveland and Akron to get testing and treatments for HIV. The medical treatments kept the levels of virus in his body at undetectable levels, his mother, Ruth, told The Marshall Project. Their church and some family members shunned them for adopting a child with HIV. Instead of staying scared, the family got educated about the virus.

From the start, Weaver’s parents had the same message: Be open, be safe.

“They gave it to me straight up. So if I was bleeding or cut my hand or something, they taught me that I always had to wear gloves and make sure that everyone was protected,” Weaver said.

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His parents also gave him “the sex talk.” He remembers being in a doctor’s office when he was nine or 10 and being shown how to put on a condom. Even then, he wasn’t worried.

“I already knew I wasn’t going to be having sex with guys,” Weaver laughed.

The lesson that most stuck with Weaver was to be open about his HIV status. When he would get close with people — friends or romantic interests — he would disclose his status, even if it meant being bullied as a result.

“People would use it against me, call me ‘HIV-bitch’ and other names. It did hurt me at one point in time, but there’s nothing I could really do. I was born this way and I had to tell people close to me,” Weaver said.

A reunion with an old friend, and a call to police

It was while scrolling through Facebook at the end of 2022 that Weaver saw the profile of a close high school classmate he’d lost touch with after dropping out his senior year. Weaver recalled exactly where they were about four years earlier when he told her that he was living with HIV: on the school bus with another friend whose name he specifically still remembers.

“I told her my whole story, [including] that I was HIV-positive. She sat there and took it all in and said she understood,” Weaver recalled.

The two met up in February 2023 and on the second day, things became sexual. Weaver said he gave the woman oral sex. The next morning, after Weaver was back at his own home, a voice inside him told him that he should remind his friend about his HIV status.

An illustration of a cracked smartphone displaying an image of a White person and a Black person smiling together.

“She flipped out. She said, ‘If I have it, I’m going to kill you.’ I just kept telling her that you can’t get [HIV] from saliva,” Weaver said.

A few hours later, the friend contacted the Austintown police.

Police questioned Weaver at his home that same day. But it wasn’t until months later that he was charged with felonious assault, arrested and booked into the county jail on June 1, 2023.

“I didn't eat for five days. They put me on a suicide watch, which meant sleeping on a mat on a dirty concrete floor with cameras watching you,” Weaver said.

After seven days of suicide watch, he was placed in the section of the jail reserved for people accused of serious crimes, such as murder. He said the women there treated him like family, made sure he ate and were mad about Weaver’s charges.

“There was even a nurse in that pod who kept saying, ‘But you can’t get HIV that way!’ Everybody knew that,” Weaver said.

Weaver sat in jail for 41 days, until eventually, his family was able to post his $12,000 bond.

Medical experts say that fear is not rooted in science

Dr. Joseph Cherabie, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University, said that the risk of HIV transmission by oral sex between two individuals assigned female at birth is “zero.”

Cherabie pointed to research, including a 10-year study that observed no transmissions in people who received oral sex among 8,965 acts, and a 1998 study that observed no transmissions due to oral sex.

Opening Statement

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Under Ohio law, the science of transmission doesn’t matter. And it didn’t matter to Judge Krichbaum when he spoke to Weaver: “The law says it doesn't matter what you do, you gotta tell somebody ahead of time, ‘This is what I have, do you still want to engage or do you not want to engage?’”

In Weaver’s case, the prosecutor said discrepancies around that key issue — whether he disclosed his HIV status — led to the plea agreement. DeGenova said had there been no deal, her office would have recommended a sentence similar to the one the judge gave Weaver, she said. The victim, she said, agreed to the plea deal.

Laws disproportionately affect Black, LGBTQ+ people

HIV decriminalization advocates say Weaver’s case highlights how the current laws can be used to discriminate against people living with HIV solely based on their health status, and even when there isn’t a risk of transmission. That is especially true for Black Ohioans, like Weaver, who test positive for HIV at higher rates.

An illustration with a dark purple background shows a person with dark hair and purple skin-tone standing on top of a large representation of an HIV test. A spotlight focusing on the person and the test beams from the state of Ohio, in red.

Who gets prosecuted under Ohio’s HIV laws? Read more.

In 2022, about 25,000 people in Ohio had an HIV diagnosis. The rate of Black residents diagnosed with HIV was more than six times the rate of White residents. The CDC has warned that laws criminalizing HIV exposure are outdated and may discourage testing, increase stigma and exacerbate disparities in Black and Latino communities. Advocating to modernize state laws is also a part of Cuyahoga County’s public health strategy to end the HIV epidemic, an effort supported by federal funding.

Authors of the recent Ohio report found that police and court records often lacked information on race or ethnicity, and the gender captured in law enforcement records didn’t always reflect a person’s gender identity. That prevents researchers from fully understanding the impact that these laws are having on some of the most vulnerable populations in Ohio, including LGBTQ+ people, people experiencing incarceration and people of color.

“These laws continue to harm marginalized communities, and we're seeing [Caymir’s] case exemplify that,” said Hicks, with The Center for HIV Law and Policy. “We're seeing someone who has already been othered based on their race. We're seeing a little bit of homophobia. We're seeing a little bit of HIV exceptionalism. We're seeing fear-mongering. We're seeing all of that in [this] case.”

In 2022, the Center for HIV Law and Policy filed a complaint with the Department of Justice on behalf of people living with HIV in Ohio and Tennessee.

In December, the DOJ notified Tennessee it was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by enforcing the state’s law that increases penalties for people convicted of prostitution if they also have HIV. On Feb. 15, the justice department sued the state and its state investigations bureau for discriminating against people living with HIV.

Enduring prison and reflecting

Nearly four months into his sentence, Weaver, now 23, is trying to keep his spirits up.

He said he was scared when he was taken from jail to prison, but has met supportive people.

His mother Ruth has been there, too. They talk as often as possible between her shifts cleaning and working a restaurant job. It weighs on her that she couldn’t afford an attorney to help fight his case. She’d watched her child be hurt and rejected his whole life for having a virus he didn’t ask for. The judge added imprisoned to the list.

It’s not lost on her that the same judge who lectured her son about morality, weeks later hit a cyclist with his car, left them by the side of the road, and ended up with only a $400 fine.

HIV decriminalization advocates say that Weaver’s case is the epitome of why they are pushing for reform of Ohio’s antiquated laws.

“The set of facts is so wildly disproportionate to any amount of harm that could ever be caused,” said Hicks.

Weaver agrees, taking exception to the comments made by Judge Krichbaum.

“If [HIV] was a death sentence, my whole family would be dead,” Weaver said.

Weaver is using his incarceration as an opportunity to figure out his life. He’s getting his GED.

Although his HIV status has been used as a weapon to imprison him, he chooses to see the virus as a “blessing.”

“I probably have it for a reason,” he said. “For you to tell my story.”

Rachel Dissell Twitter Email is a Cleveland-based journalist with more than two decades of experience reporting on the justice system. She is a two-time winner of the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.