The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld a 25-year sentence for Jimmy Dean Stevens, who was convicted under the state’s criminal HIV transmission statute for engaging in oral sex with a 15-year-old boy, in a conviction that relied on jurors using “common knowledge” about how the virus is transmitted.
As a result of the August 4 decision, Stevens now faces a 35-year sentence, because he also received ten years for sexual assault of a minor, a conviction he did not appeal.
According to the opinion by Justice Jerry Larson, Stevens, 33, met 15-year-old J.B. in an Internet chatroom for gay men. Stevens claimed he did not know the boy was only 15, and made plans to meet him at J.B.’s house. The boy’s mother, who apparently thought Stevens was somebody advising her son on getting into college, was at home when Stevens arrived. Stevens and J.B. left to go eat and on the way parked and had mutual oral sex, during which Stevens ejaculated in J.B.’s mouth. The boy later testified that he received assurances from Stevens that he was “clean”—that is, uninfected—which Stevens knew was false, having long ago been diagnosed with HIV.
When J.B. returned home, his mother commented that Stevens “looked like he was a good candidate for AIDS.” J.B., alarmed, “made himself vomit” and then called Stevens, and was again reassured the older man was “clean.” But some time later, J.B. learned that Stevens was HIV-positive and he contacted the police. J.B. has repeatedly tested negative.
Stevens was charged with sexual abuse and criminal transmission of HIV, defined in Iowa law as engaging in conduct that could transmit the virus, whether or not infection occurs. Enforcement of the law is triggered by evidence of “intimate conduct,” defined as “the intentional exposure of the body of one person to a bodily fluid of another person in a manner that could result in the transmission of HIV.” The prosecutor did not provide any expert testimony on the issue of HIV transmission through oral sex, and Stevens claimed this was a fatal flaw, arguing that his conduct did not meet the statutory definition.
Justice Larson pointed out that in Iowa courts, as well as those of other states, the proposition that HIV is transmitted in semen and can be spread by oral sex is now so well established as a matter of law that a court can accept it as “common knowledge.”
The jury was instructed that if it found based on the evidence that Stevens knew he was infected, did not disclose this fact to J.B., and engaged in “intimate contact” with the boy, he should be found guilty, that instruction presuming that oral sex qualified, even absent proof of transmission. In asserting that it is common knowledge that oral sex transmits HIV, the prosecution relied principally on a case involving vaginal intercourse, but Larson, relying on a dictionary definition of intercourse that went beyond penetration by a penis, held that the term covered oral sex as well.
Therefore, the prosecution’s lack of expert testimony on the risks of oral sex HIV transmission—which is generally viewed as minimal—was not judged a failure to meet its burden of proof. For the Iowa Supreme Court, it was sufficient that the Legislature apparently believed that unprotected oral sex was as serious in terms of criminal culpability as other sexual behaviors in which transmission is far more likely.
A sentence of 25 years seems extremely harsh for a single act of oral sex that did not transmit HIV, though Stevens’ actions do seem worthy of some criminal culpability. He actively concealed his HIV status while engaging in unprotected sex with an underage boy who may well not have had the maturity to realize that any potential partner could have HIV or to resist the lure of sex with an older man he considers attractive.