A Victory in the Fight Against HIV Criminalization

2015-04-30 08.19.17-2After a 19-month nightmare of facing criminal charges, possible imprisonment, and almost losing her job, a 25-year-old Pennsylvania woman has emerged victorious after striking a blow in the fight against HIV criminalization.

Julie Graham, a licensed practical nurse from Lebanon County, was charged with four crimes, including two felonies, based on allegations by a man she had dated who claimed she had not disclosed her HIV status. The man who made the complaint against her did not contract HIV.

Convictions on the charges carried the potential for decades in prison. Julie had to post $25,000 bail after being arrested.

She turned to the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania for help, where Executive Director Ronda B. Goldfein, Managing Attorney Yolanda French Lollis and Staff Attorney Adrian M. Lowe stood with her from beginning to end.

Julie was stunned when state police contacted her in September 2013 and told her of the man’s allegations. When Julie was diagnosed with HIV in 2011, she began treatment and her viral load was soon undetectable, meaning it was all but impossible for her to transmit the virus.

As a result of the charges, Julie was suspended indefinitely from her hospital job and scheduled to lose her medical insurance. Her name, the small town where she lives and works, and her private medical information were exposed in the local media’s coverage of the case.

“I’ve had hit after hit after hit over the last two years,” she said.

After the indefinite suspension, she filed for unemployment, but her hospital challenged it. The AIDS Law Project, with the assistance of Thomas R. Kline School of Law summer intern Kim Hollenback, represented Julie at a hearing and got her the unemployment compensation she deserved. As her employer-provided insurance was ending, we advised her on how to get Medicaid. We also helped her get her Licensed Practical Nurse license renewed after it had briefly lapsed, threatening her entire career.

With the vigorous representation of criminal defense lawyer Larry Krasner, of Krasner and Long, LLC all but one of the charges were dropped. The AIDS Law Project worked with Larry in developing Julie’s defense, including providing an expert witness on HIV transmission.

Lawyers from the AIDS Law Project then met with the Lebanon County District Attorney to discuss general concerns about HIV criminalization. This March, the District Attorney’s office announced that it would not prosecute the remaining charge.

Based on the disposition of the criminal charges, the AIDS Law Project challenged the hospital’s intention to terminate her employment.

Finally, on April 16, Julie’s nightmare came to an end, when the hospital notified her she could return to work.

“When these HIV criminalization cases occur, I want people to know you can fight it,” Julie said.

As a result of her experience, Julie has become an HIV activist and is committed to educating people, particularly young women, about HIV.

“People need to be educated about the disease,” she said. “Once you’re educated, there’s so much power in that.”

Ronda said that HIV criminalization prosecutions have the potential to consume a person’s life.

“When you get charged with a crime like this, there is so much collateral damage at every level,” she said.

Adrian said he hoped other prosecutors take note of the case.

“We hope this is the beginning of a trend where prosecutors make decisions based on science, not fear,” he said.