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

Illustration by Candice Evers for The Marshall Project of a Black man in an orange jumpsuit handcuffed behind his back facing a white judge in a black robe in a courtoom.

This article tells the story of Caymir Weaver, a man living with HIV in Ohio who is in jail for HIV exposure.  As with so many HIV-related prosecutions, his case has little to do with facts and everything to do with him being othered by anti-Blackness, homophobia, transphobia, HIV exceptionalism & fear-mongering.

"Ohio has six laws that criminalize living with HIV, leading to at least 200 prosecutions in recent years....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 [CHLP's Jada] Hicks."

The article was co-produced by The Buckeye Flame and The Marshall Project.


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.

By KEN SCHNECK, The Buckeye Flame, and RACHEL DISSELL, The Marshall Project

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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