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When crime goes viral

Activists say Illinois’s law that makes it illegal to expose others to HIV is racist and homophobic. Now they’re close to changing it.

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NGUYEN TRAN
  • Nguyen Tran

In early 2016, Jimmy Amutavi had what he considered a happy life.

More than a decade had passed since he first emigrated to the U.S. from Kenya with dreams of being a personal trainer. Amutavi had settled down with his wife and young son in Evanston and was renting space at a nearby gym where the lifelong fitness fanatic gave private lessons.

But Amutavi’s ties to the gym went beyond business.

Amutavi says he got a voicemail message from a Skokie police detective in 2016 saying there was a warrant out for his arrest. The detective alleged the personal trainer had exposed three women he had sex with to HIV without their knowledge. One of them was a woman he’d met at the gym with whom he’d had a relationship.

Amutavi remembers feeling like his life was over.

“I was just floating there,” Amutavi says. “I didn’t know anything. It was as if someone had drugged me, and I was a zombie.”

He surrendered to police custody in October 2016, but maintained his innocence.

Amutavi claims that when he ended his relationship with the woman, she retaliated by contacting his clients and disclosing his HIV status. Two other women, who Amutavi had also slept with, then agreed to press charges as well, he says. In addition, his lawyer tells the Reader and Injustice Watch that Amutavi’s principal accuser allegedly violated health privacy laws to obtain Amutavi’s private medical information through her job at a local hospital, which gave her access to those records. Phone calls and e-mails to the woman were not returned.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office charged Amutavi with three counts of criminal transmission of HIV, each count punishable by up to seven years in prison. Prosecutors alleged Amutavi had intentionally hidden his HIV status from the three women, and through condomless sex, had put them at risk of contracting the virus themselves.

Prosecutors dropped the charges in April 2017 under then-newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office.

“Jon saved my life,” Amutavi says of his attorney, Jon F. Erickson. “He gave me a lot of peace, and he assured me that we were gonna beat this.”

One of the problems with the state’s case against Amutavi was that there was no way for him to transmit the virus because he takes medicine to treat and suppress the HIV in his body.

Illinois’s HIV criminalization law makes it illegal for a person living with HIV to have condomless sex without first disclosing their HIV status to their sexual partners. The law also makes it illegal for someone to donate blood, semen, tissue, or organs, or to share non-sterile drug paraphernalia, such as needles, if they have HIV and don’t first disclose that to the recipient. The law can and has been applied even if transmission of HIV does not occur.

Amutavi is one of the dozens of people charged in Cook County under the controversial law that Illinois lawmakers passed in the late 1980s at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Scores of critics say policies like Illinois’s are a dangerous and misguided attempt at stopping the spread of HIV and punish people for merely living with the virus while potentially allowing vengeful lovers to weaponize the law against people living with HIV. Activists pushing to repeal the law say it’s a product of the overwhelmingly homophobic panic of that era and disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people.

A 2020 Chicago HIV surveillance report found that non-Hispanic Black people accounted for half of all people living with HIV, as well as the most frequently diagnosed population, in Chicago in 2019. Black men who have sex with men are also most at risk for contracting HIV.

“You can't really legislate around stigma,” says Aisha Davis, director of policy at AIDS Foundation Chicago. “Then, when you add to that the implications around race, around gender, identity, around just the perception of someone when they've been charged with this, it means that Black and Latinx folks are going to be targeted even more.”

Cook County hasn’t prosecuted anyone under the statute since 2016. Still, the law remains on the books and within prosecutors’ discretion.

Critics are also quick to point out that the law ignores the proliferation of pre-exposure prophylaxis, landmark HIV prevention drugs commonly known as PrEP, which have been found to be almost 99 percent effective. Activists and public health officials alike say the law also ignores the fact that, as the CDC states, people like Amutavi who are living with HIV and have been regularly taking treatment have no risk of transmitting the virus, even without a condom. And like when the law was first up for debate, many today say the law punishes people for living with an incurable virus.

The law targets people “with the specific intent” to withhold their HIV status and spread the virus to their partners. But critics say that intent is difficult if not impossible to prove, and can be easily fabricated.

In June 2017, Amutavi obtained an order of protection for his family against the woman who allegedly accessed Amutavi’s medical records. The petition alleges that over a yearlong period beginning in June 2016, the woman keyed Amutavi’s car and verbally harassed him, his wife, and young son. However, Amutavi and his family declined to press charges, prioritizing fighting the charges against him.

But even after the county dropped the HIV charges against Amutavi, they still followed him, at least briefly. He applied to clear his record of the charges, but that application was denied in June 2018 by then-Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Falagario. The form-letter denial states that “the people's interest in maintaining the records outweigh petitioner’s need for expungement.” Falagario wrote “multiple charges involving criminal transmission of HIV” as additional reasoning to deny the expungement petition before signing his name.

Court officials later expunged Amutavi’s record in late July 2018 after, Erickson says, they were “educated” about his case.

But Amutavi, now in his 50s, says he still bears the emotional and psychological scars and the real-world consequences from his case. After news organizations like the Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, and the Associated Press publicized the allegations against him, Amutavi says he lost all of his clients. He left his passion for personal training behind as a result. (He asked the Reader and Injustice Watch not to name his current employer out of fear of harassment from his principal accuser, which he says continues.)

He gets emotional talking about the case and is fiercely private about his personal information out of fear that the woman he broke up with will continue to harass him and his family. Therapy has helped him deal with the anxiety, depression, and PTSD he says he carries from the ordeal. There are good days, he says, when his shame and guilt subside, “but the bad days are still there.”

“Every once in a while, I'm reminded of, you know, all of this,” he says.

He also says he worries about how the charges, or news coverage about them, will impact his son, now ten years old. Internet searches of Amutavi’s name call up his mugshot and the numerous articles about the allegations against him. But news about his exoneration nearly a year later is scant.

“I struggle with this thought, you know, my son googling me,” Amutavi says. “And I worry how this might affect him one day.”

Amutavi’s case, and the damage it caused him and his family, are far from unique.

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The Chicago Reader and Injustice Watch examined the law’s origins in Illinois, how prosecutors have leveraged it in Cook County, and its impacts on people charged. Our investigation is part of The Circuit, a courts data project led by Injustice Watch and the Better Government Association, in partnership with civic tech consulting firm DataMade.

Early charges under the law indeed reflect critics’ concerns about racism and homophobic AIDS panic, but so do recent prosecutions. As part of this investigation, we reviewed court records and used news clippings to dig up charges and track down attorneys, activists, and people charged.

An analysis of Cook County court data by The Circuit shows that Black men make up more than two-thirds of the people charged under this law; and across gender lines 75 percent of those charged are Black.

Court data shows that between 1990 and 2016, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office charged at least 60 people with criminal transmission of HIV. Prosecutors themselves put that number closer to 80 people during that time frame, and the discrepancy could come from myriad places. In our analysis, we eliminated names and cases that appeared to be related or duplicates. Some cases, like the one against Amutavi, could have been expunged or sealed.

The data also shows that prosecutors added HIV transmission charges in nearly 30 cases alleging criminal or aggravated sexual abuse or assault, almost half of the HIV transmission charges we found. Prosecutors have charged 15 people solely with criminal transmission of HIV, half of whom have pleaded guilty. And though prosecutors dropped roughly a third of all HIV-related charges, at least 20 people in the county have been convicted of criminal transmission of HIV since 1989.

The first Cook County State’s Attorney to charge someone with criminal transmission of HIV after the law passed in 1989 was Cecil A. Partee, a Democrat who was appointed to replace Richard M. Daley after Daley was elected mayor of Chicago. Partee was the first Black person to serve as the county's top prosecutor, and Cook County wouldn't elect a second until Kim Foxx, another Democrat, won the post in 2016. Partee’s tenure was short-lived though, ended by Republican Jack O’Malley in a November 1990 special election.

Court data shows that Partee prosecuted two people under the law. One was a Black man charged in 1990 with criminal sexual assault, criminal HIV transmission, and unlawful restraint. He pled guilty to the latter charge while prosecutors dropped the sex-related claims against him. Circuit Court judge Margaret Stanton McBride, now an Illinois appellate judge, sentenced the man to one year in prison in 1991. We couldn’t find out much more than that; privacy laws restrict access to the case file, and we couldn’t find contact info for the defendant or any news stories about the case.

However, Partee’s other prosecution made more headlines—and stoked critics' fears about the HIV law’s disparate application. The case began with the March 1990 arrest of Olivia St. John, a Black transgender woman who an August 1990 Chicago Tribune article reported as the defendant in the county’s “first AIDS biting case.” 

Prosecutors alleged that St. John bit and scratched two police officers as they tried locking her up at a north-side police station after cops found her breaking car windows, according to the article. A representative for the state’s attorney’s office at the time told the newspaper that prosecutors approved the charges before conferring with medical experts but dropped the charges after they couldn’t prove that HIV can be transmitted through saliva.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that possible HIV transmission from a bite is almost impossible.

Court records about the case show that St. John was initially charged with two counts of criminal transmission of HIV and four counts of aggravated battery. St. John pleaded guilty to a single aggravated battery count in October 1990, and Judge Howard T. Savage sentenced her to three years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Court records use male gender markers for St. John, who the Tribune reports identifies as a woman, though the article used male gender markers as well.

It’s all but certain that St. John was sent to a men’s prison in the state, despite being a woman. The American Civil Liberties Union is currently suing the state’s department of corrections, alleging the agency fails to properly care for trans people in its custody.

The 1990 Tribune article about St. John’s case also uses offensive, outdated, transphobic language to describe her.

Bill McMillan, a member of the Chicago chapter of ACT UP, the historic HIV/AIDS-focused activist group, is quoted in the 1990 article as saying St. John’s arrest was “based on racism, homophobia and AIDS panic.” ACT UP famously forced the government, and the public, to confront the reality of the virus in the early days of the AIDS crisis under President Ronald Reagan. The grassroots group was founded in New York City in 1987, two years before Illinois passed its HIV criminalization law.

McMillan told the Reader and Injustice Watch that cases like St. John’s were all too common. He says he doesn’t blame St. John for biting and scratching the officers.

“They were pretty brutal with us, pretty brutal with a lot of people,” he says. “She was probably fighting for her life.”

McMillan, who now lives in Palm Springs, California, says he was diagnosed with HIV in 1983, when the virus was known as GRID, or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. He says Illinois's HIV criminalization law, and others like it around the country, came at a particularly difficult time in the AIDS crisis when thousands were dying due in large part to a federal government that sought to let them perish.

“I was afraid,” McMillan says. “I think we were all afraid. And we were outraged. It just was another attack on us, you know?

“When they passed that law, it added insult to injury. And it just really affected my self-esteem, affected my mental health, affected my emotional feelings.”

Prosecutors couldn’t prove that St. John could have even transmitted the virus through scratching and spitting in 1990. But that didn’t stop Cook County from bringing charges against other people based on similarly bad science.

In one case, from December 2000, a man living with HIV was charged under the law after allegedly spitting blood at officers while being arrested during a domestic disturbance, records show. In November 2011, police in Oak Park charged a man with criminal transmission of HIV after he allegedly bit an officer on the thumb during an arrest and broke the skin.

Many cases also center on ex-lovers who call the police alleging that their partners hid their HIV status.

In one 1993 case, a woman was charged with attempted murder and criminal transmission of HIV after she didn’t tell her husband she was living with the virus. Prosecutors explained the attempted murder charge in court documents by alleging that exposing her husband to HIV was “a substantial step toward the commission of first degree murder.”

In a motion to dismiss, the woman and her attorneys argued that the law was vague and violated her due process rights. Her motion was eventually denied and she pleaded guilty to criminal transmission of HIV. In 1994, Cook County judge Richard E. Neville barred her from having unprotected sex of any kind for four years as part of her probation.

She was later found to have violated her probation after she gave birth to a child.

More recently, in 2013, Cicero police officer John Savage was charged by Cook County prosecutors after a sexual partner learned he had HIV and called the police, according to news reports of his arrest. But, like Amutavi, Savage posed no risk of transmitting the virus, leaders from groups including Lambda Legal, AIDS Foundation Chicago, and the ACLU of Illinois say.

Savage ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge the following year; activists say prosecutors routinely stack charges in order to secure convictions, while HIV-specific charges often go unchallenged. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that Savage eventually left law enforcement and the state of Illinois after his case was over. He could not be reached for comment.

But even amid a wave of progressive district attorneys being elected across the country, prosecutors still have little incentive to speak out against these laws or stop prosecuting these charges outright, says Kenyon Farrow, co-executive director of Partners for Dignity & Rights, previously known as the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

“District attorneys often have bigger political ambitions, and how they make their mark to run for  mayors, governors, federal offices is by their record of how many people they prosecuted,” he says.

In Cook County, prosecutors varied in how frequently they brought HIV-related charges. Former state’s attorney O'Malley prosecuted 19 cases from 1992 to 1996, an average of nearly five cases a year. His successor, Dick Devine, initiated 24 cases from 1997 to 2008, an average of about two cases a year. Anita Alvarez prosecuted 16 cases from 2010 until 2016, about three cases a year and closer to O’Malley’s rate.

O’Malley, Devine, and Alvarez did not respond to multiple requests for comment by presstime.

Roughly five months before Amutavi was charged, Alvarez told the Windy City Times in what was considered a landmark statement at the time that the state’s HIV criminalization law “makes no sense and is clearly out of date and out of line with modern science.” But that didn’t deter her office from filing charges under the law.

Alvarez’s office filed charges under the HIV criminalization law in May 2016, two months after her comments, and again the following November, according to court data.

Amutavi was arrested that October. Erickson, his attorney, alleges that Alvarez’s office conducted a sloppy investigation into the allegations against Amutavi before the arrest.

Amutavi and his attorney both claim the principal woman who had accused him was well aware of his HIV status when she reported him to the police, and only found two other accusers after she went through his phone.

Amutavi was one of the last people Cook County officials say they have charged under the law. The origins of the measure, which was passed in 1989 during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States and the panic that ensued, is crucial, and is reflected in the law itself.

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Just two years before former Illinois state representative Penny Pullen, a Republican from Park Ridge, introduced the state’s HIV criminalization bill in 1989, President Ronald Reagan tapped her for a spot on his Presidential Commission on HIV/AIDS.

Pullen was first elected in 1977 to represent the 55th District, which at the time comprised suburbs north and west of Chicago, including Des Plaines, Park Ridge, and part of Niles. She spent 16 years in the Illinois House, eventually rising to the rank of assistant minority leader, and made a name for herself in Springfield sponsoring many controversial HIV/AIDS-related bills.

One such bill became a short-lived law, passed in 1987, requiring people to be tested for HIV before getting marriage licenses. The law earned national criticism and lasted for 21 months before being repealed by the state legislature in September 1989.

Illinois’s HIV criminalization law came during a particularly critical time of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. Just two years before House Bill 1871 was passed by the state legislature, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the toxic drug azidothymidine, originally a failed attempt at cancer treatment, as the first drug to fight HIV/AIDS. There were 100,000 reported AIDS cases in the country at the time Illinois’s law passed, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The state legislature eventually passed both a House and Senate version of the HIV criminalization bill, though the latter was vetoed out of redundancy. Though the bills received significant support at the time, they also had some staunch critics, according to legislative transcripts. One of the most vocal critics was representative Ellis B. Levin, a Democrat.

“What we have here is a bill that basically says, let’s discriminate against people who are sick,” Levin said on the House floor in June 1989. “Let’s make it a crime to be sick . . . you know, at some point you need to say enough is enough.”

In support of the bill, however, state representative Ron Stephens, a Republican, called it “absolutely ridiculous” to oppose Pullen’s bill following Levin’s testimony.

“We’re not talking about a common cold here, representative,” Stephens said in response to Levin. “We’re talking about a disease that kills. Why don’t you just understand that once and for all? Quit the demagoguery on the issue.”

Then-representative Ed Petka also testified in support of the Senate version. During his testimony, Petka conjured sensational images of gay men living with HIV biting officers during arrests, claims he said he heard from a Chicago police officer he was close friends with.

Pullen was also involved with the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an ultraconservative nonprofit of lawmakers and business leaders that sends model legislation to state governments across the country, alongside her state House seat and her role on Reagan’s AIDS commission. And as Trevor Hoppe wrote in his 2017 book Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness, Pullen used her role at ALEC in particular to spread her influence on AIDS policy.

“She's not the end all be all, but she has this really instrumental place in history,” says Hoppe, an assistant sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “There's no one else who really played a similar kind of role in specifically promoting HIV criminal statutes.”

Pullen did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The same year Pullen introduced House Bill 1871, ALEC released a report on AIDS policy, Hoppe wrote. The report included model legislation on topics including public education, partner notification, mandatory screening of incarcerated people, and HIV criminalization.

The organization’s version of an HIV criminalization statute was nearly identical to Pullen’s bill in Illinois, and was first proposed by Pullen during testimony before ALEC’s AIDS working group, Hoppe wrote.

But the influence of Illinois’s law didn’t just extend to ALEC. Hoppe wrote that lawmakers in Nevada turned to House Bill 1871 when drafting their own HIV criminalization statute. Alaska lawmakers similarly conferred with officials in Illinois when taking up their law.

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the law in early 1994. The American Public Health Association, the Illinois Public Health Association, and separately the AIDS Legal Council, filed briefs in the case urging the state’s high court to strike down the law as unconstitutional.

“The extreme ambiguity of the law undermines educational efforts critical to limiting the spread of HIV,” the health associations wrote.

But in a biting January 1994 opinion, former Justice James D. Heiple blasted claims that the law was vague and violated two defendants’ rights to free speech and association. Heiple, a Republican, served on the Illinois Supreme Court for a decade beginning in 1990.

“Vagueness, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder,” the onetime chief justice wrote. “We, however, read the statute as being sufficiently clear and explicit so that a person of ordinary intelligence need not have to guess at its meaning or application.”

In 2012, the Illinois state legislature amended the HIV criminalization law to specifically require that the intent to transmit the virus be present, an effort to assuage activists pushing for reform. But critics like Davis, AIDS Foundation Chicago’s policy director, say the change does little to reform the law because of the difficulty in proving intent.

And now, more than 30 years after Pullen’s law was first passed in Illinois, prosecutors across the country continue to pursue cases under similar laws.

The Center for HIV Law and Policy reports that, as of last July, 28 states now have HIV-specific criminal laws and eight states have applicable sentencing enhancements. Additionally, 25 states have also used general criminal laws to prosecute people living with HIV.

Scott Schoettes, director of Lambda Legal’s HIV Project, has challenged a number of HIV-centered convictions across the country.

In 2012, he helped win a ruling from New York’s highest court that the saliva of a man living with HIV could not be considered a “dangerous instrument” under state law. The ruling vacated an aggravated assault conviction against David Plunkett over a 2006 incident in which he bit a police officer. At the time of his release, he had served half of a ten-year sentence.

In 2014, Schoettes helped exonerate Nick Rhoades, who had been sentenced to 25 years in Iowa prison in 2008 for not disclosing his HIV status to a sexual partner even though they had protected sex. As part of that sentence, he was also required to register as a sex offender. After Rhoades’s sentence was shortened to probation, Schoettes took over his case and successfully fought to have his conviction overturned.

Schoettes is quick to point out that alongside HIV-specific criminal statutes, people living with HIV are also frequently prosecuted under general criminal laws, including Plunkett. This, Schoettes says, makes the repeal of HIV-specific statutes less effective if those efforts don’t also address those general criminal laws.

Alongside the allegations themselves, Schoettes says the accompanying attention can be damaging as well. But unlike the era when these laws were passed, news coverage of contemporary allegations now live forever on the Internet, as do mugshots and oftentimes private medical information.

And as the news media cover these charges, defendants are often portrayed as malicious disease spreaders and not, as they often are, victims of stigma and circumstance, their once-private medical information now on display.

Farrow, of Partners for Dignity & Rights, says he sees such articles come up across the nation at least once a week.

“[These articles] are almost always framed around, ‘This person is a kind of pariah who is out here trying to infect other people,’” says Farrow, who also recently worked as a senior editor at HIV/AIDS-focused publication The Body.

Tami Haught is the managing director of Sero Project, which aims to repeal HIV criminalization bills nationwide. She says her late husband, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1993, struggled significantly with fear that her family would force her to file charges against him under Iowa’s since-reformed HIV criminalization law. She says he eventually suffered a mental breakdown.

Haught has been living with HIV for more than 27 years, and says her late husband eventually died of pneumonia, kidney failure, and complications related to AIDS. But she says the other causes of his death—like stigma, shame, and fear—are much harder to diagnose.

Haught spoke before the Iowa state legislature in 2013 and 2014 and helped update the state’s HIV statute. In 2014, Iowa updated its statute to scrap a 25-year prison sentence and to allow for a tiered sentencing system, including felonies and misdemeanors, depending on the situation.

Haught says she knows of situations in which HIV criminalization laws have been used to trap people living with HIV in abusive relationships.

“These laws were put on the books to protect women,” Haught says. “And actually women are at the greatest risk of prosecution or domestic violence or manipulation because of these laws, and their partners using these laws to keep them trapped.”

Alongside Iowa, a handful of other states have also updated their HIV-related criminal statutes in various ways.

Most recently, in early April, Virginia updated its HIV-specific laws to require a heavier burden of proof regarding intent and actual transmission of the virus. However, state law still makes it a felony to intentionally transmit HIV, dubbed “infected sexual battery.”

In late 2018, Michigan updated its HIV disclosure law to exempt from prosecution people living with HIV who are on treatment and are virally suppressed. In 2017, California downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV and reduced the possible prison term from three to eight years to six months.

Colorado, in 2016, repealed two of its HIV criminalization laws and significantly modified a third.

Farrow, of Partners for Dignity & Rights, particularly criticized reforms that only exempt from prosecution people who are virally suppressed, pointing to significant health disparities in the United States.

“There's kind of this false notion that everybody has equal access to HIV care, and it's just not true,” he says.

And here in Illinois, it's now in the governor’s hands to repeal the state’s HIV criminalization law.

Until recently, Amutavi’s mugshot was the first thing that appeared when searching his name on the Internet. But some news organizations, including the Chicago Tribune, have begun to offer ways for people to apply to have their mugshots taken down—finally understanding the harms caused by publishing mugshots without context.

After I heard that the Tribune offered this, I urged Amutavi to reach out. His mugshot has since been scrubbed from the Trib’s website. But articles about the charges against him remain, again limiting his ability to move on completely.

If a group of state legislators has their way, however, there won’t be any more charges under the law ever again.

In February 2021, Illinois state senator Robert Peters sponsored a bill to amend the 2012 criminal code to completely repeal the HIV criminalization statute and amend other HIV-related statutes. The bill recently passed both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature.

In an interview with the Reader and Injustice Watch, Peters says he was motivated to introduce the bill after activists approached him from the Illinois HIV Action Alliance, a coalition launched in June 2019 to end HIV criminalization in the state. He called the law and others like it the intersection of anti-Black racism and “gay panic.”

“When you combine those sort of systemic prejudices with a system of incarceration that's built on top of that, you get laws like these that don't do anything for anybody,” Peters says.

Just months before Illinois HIV Action Alliance went public, members sent a letter to Attorney General Kwame Raoul in March 2019 asking him to issue a formal written opinion interpreting the statute to require specific intent to transmit HIV.

“During your campaign, you spoke passionately of your long-standing commitment to criminal justice reform,” the letter states. “As part of that promise, we urge you to prioritize ending unjust prosecutions of people living with HIV.”

Since Peters’s bill was introduced, nearly three dozen legislators, including the recently appointed Mike Simmons, Illinois’s first openly gay state senator, signed on as co-sponsors. Peters says he’s hopeful the bill will get the governor’s signature, crediting in particular the Black, queer organizers who led the charge against the original HIV criminalization law. But he admits that even now, decades into the fight against HIV/AIDS, progress has its limits.

“When we have floor debates, I would not be surprised if we hear some similar statements that were made in the past, brought up again,” Peters says, referring to the inflammatory remarks by 86th General Assembly members who debated the original law in 1989. “And I think that it's gonna be disgusting, and nasty, but that is not the majority of voices, I believe, in our chamber and under the dome.”

But even if Peters’s law passes, relief for people previously charged under the law, like Amutavi, is limited. He left a fulfilling career, had his name, face, and HIV status spread all across the country. The ordeal had irreversible impacts on him, and his family.

And despite all he has endured, maybe even in spite of it all, Amutavi looks ahead with purpose. I asked him if had anything to say to the woman who led the allegations against him.

“She didn’t bury me,” he says. “She planted me.”   v


Additional reporting and research by Adeshina Emmanuel, Injustice Watch.

This story was co-produced by the Chicago Reader and Injustice Watch as part of The Circuit, a joint project from Injustice Watch and Better Government Association, in partnership with the civic tech consulting firm DataMade. The Circuit was made possible with support from the McCormick Foundation. Learn more about the project here.

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