Letters to the Editor

BY DI READERS | APRIL 23, 2014 5:00 AM

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Janet Lyness and me

On a night in January 2007, I was riding my bike home from work and a driver coming up behind me, for whatever reason, did what many drivers do to cyclists. He decided to throw a little scare in me to remind me that drivers own the road and cyclists don’t belong there. This is something that cyclists experience on a daily basis in Iowa City — or really any other city. I challenged this driver, he emerged from his vehicle with a 4-foot-long windshield scraper and bashed the right side of my head several times.

Ultimately, he began poking me in the face with his finger and —whether accidentally or on purpose — his finger penetrated my mouth. I bit down hard enough to break the skin, lacerating his finger as he pulled out. This more or less ended the confrontation between us. I called the police to report the incident (imagine that), and the driver left the scene.

I test positive for antibodies to HIV. I am HIV positive. I have been since 1993 and I’ve never been particularly discreet about this. “Silence Equals Death,” was the mantra of ACT UP as I came to adulthood and middle age during the health crisis.

To shorten a long story, the driver who threatened me — the driver who beat me and stuck his finger in my mouth, the driver who had been driving on a license restored to him for only weeks before this incident as he had been barred for points accumulation, who had a raft of speeding and other traffic infractions — wasn’t charged with anything.

I was charged with assault causing injury, a serious misdemeanor. I was told by my attorney that Janet Lyness as county attorney was doing me a “favor” by not charging me with a violation of Iowa’s HIV criminalization statute, which carries a mandatory 25-year prison sentence. I pled “not guilty” and awaited trial. A motion was made to keep the issue of my HIV status from the jury for fear it would prejudice the case against me. HIV transmission is only a theoretical risk from a bite — no such transmission has ever been documented — yet Lyness’ office insisted on using my HIV-positive status at trial, and the judge turned down our motion to suppress this.

The virus has been suppressed in my body since 1996. It’s not likely I could transmit HIV to anyone even in the more conventional ways, let alone the bite of a finger. An argument could be made that the person who inserted his finger in my mouth represented a greater health risk to me.

In short, Lyness won her case against me. HIV is a scary thing for jurors who don’t know much about HIV. My lawyer had tested the issue and informed me that it’s not likely the facts of the case would have resulted in a guilty conviction without the issue of HIV.

I think reasonable people can disagree as to the appropriate nature of my choice to confront a driver who endangered my life. But reasonable people cannot dispute my lack of either intent or ability to transmit HIV to a man who inserted his finger into my mouth.

If this is the kind of justice that Janet Lyness finds fair in our much-lauded-as-progressive community, what other tactics has Lyness been willing to stoop to increase her win-rate at trial? I was lucky in some ways; while I’m gay and HIV positive, that doesn’t trump the privilege of being white and having money. The County Attorney’s Office under Lyness is in the position to needlessly ruin the lives of people who could never afford to go to trial or who would likely get much less than the best representation if they did.

This is my personal story of why I cannot support Lyness. Over the last year, I have gotten to know John Zimmerman, and I have become an early supporter. John represents the hope of significant change in our community; he will end the prosecution-happy, police-driven environment at the Johnson County Courthouse. Please vote for John Zimmerman on June 3 (early voting begins April 24).

Donald Baxter

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