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Law on HIV Infection Little Used

As a victim finds, state's tough standard means few who knowingly pass the virus are prosecuted.

September 10, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Thomas Lister awkwardly faced the roomful of strangers, offering the intimate details of his five-month sexual affair with former city health commissioner Ron Hill.

Testifying before a grand jury here last week, the 38-year-old former brokerage manager described his sense of outrage and betrayal at learning that Hill, a nurse, lied about his HIV status before infecting Lister with the disease in 2000.

"I trusted him when he said he didn't have HIV," Lister said of his former partner in an interview. "If you can't trust a nurse and city heath commissioner, who can you trust?"

Lister wants his ex-lover behind bars. But for the grand jury, which met in secret for a second and last time Tuesday to consider the matter, handing up an indictment is complicated.

If charged, Hill would join only a handful of people statewide pursued under a controversial 5-year-old law that prosecutors criticize as so narrow it hampers efforts to punish those who transmit HIV through sexual activity.

California differs from some two dozen other states with similar laws because it includes a caveat that requires authorities to prove defendants acted "with the specific intent" to infect their sex partners with HIV. Three other states have laws that match California's requirement.

The California law has brought just one conviction, in a 2002 Hermosa Beach case in which a man who knew he was HIV-infected exposed two girlfriends to the deadly disease over several years. The 41-year-old man was sentenced to eight years in prison after accepting a plea bargain agreement.

In California's decades-long battle against AIDS transmission, the specific-intent clause has caused an ongoing skirmish between HIV activists and law enforcement. Advocates say the law's language protects HIV sufferers from unfounded accusations, while officials say it limits their ability to prosecute these cases.

"If this law is designed to protect against bad behavior, it's not doing its job," said Elliot Beckelman, an assistant district attorney in San Francisco who has worked on the Hill case. "We have an incredibly large gay population in this city. But we haven't been able to use this law in our arsenal to protect the public safety."

For years, Lister has been talking about the disease his ex-lover kept secret from him. He has addressed the San Francisco health commission on the case and last year he won a $5-million civil default judgment against Hill, now 45, who disappeared after being confronted by Lister about his HIV status.

Lister met Hill over the Internet in 2000, recalling, "I felt I had met someone who I had really connected with." During a discussion of their HIV status, Lister said, Hill assured him he was disease-free. Soon, the two were having regular, unprotected sex.

"I have played this over and over in my head a thousand times," he said. "How could a health commissioner in any city, but especially in San Francisco where AIDS is epidemic, lie about his HIV status and intentionally infect someone?"

Hill had been appointed by Mayor Willie Brown in 1997 to the seven-member commission, which advises the health department. Mitchell Katz, director of the San Francisco Department of Health, said that historically, one commissioner had been HIV-positive, "and Ron Hill played that role."

It wasn't until the couple took an Alaskan cruise five months into their relationship that Lister learned the truth. Alone in their tiny stateroom while Hill was getting a massage, Lister found a doctor's prescription for AIDS-related drugs.

"I went into shock," he recalled. "Here was proof that a man I trusted intimately had been lying to me about something that could kill me. I couldn't focus. I had to go on deck to get some air, to decide what to do."

Rather than risk a fight with Hill in the confined space of a cruise ship, Lister waited. He fought off his lover's advances. Meanwhile, he began to feel sick. He visited the ship's surgeon, who advised him to see his doctor.

When finally confronted, Hill claimed he was taking medications as a preventive measure because a former lover suffered from AIDS. "He denied everything," recalled Lister. "Then he picked up his belongings and left."

Lister was diagnosed as having HIV in October 2002. That same month, Hill resigned from his health commission post following his arrest in Sonoma County for allegedly passing $3,000 in bad checks.

About 800,000 people in the United States are infected with HIV, although a quarter of them do not know they are infected, federal statistics show. In San Francisco, 19,000 live with HIV or AIDS.

Yet the number of people pursued under HIV-infection laws nationwide has been small. A recent study pinpointed 316 prosecutions between 1986 and 2001 -- a number that represents a mere fraction of other sex-related crimes. Some experts question whether such laws are even necessary.

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