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Malicious intent seen as dividing factor in Boone trial

Ottawa AIDS/HIV activists weigh in on guilty verdict

"There is no evidence that charges against people living with HIV improve anything to do with public health and safety," says Jay Koornstra.
In the wake of the Steven Boone trial, community members and HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations are speaking out against the verdict. Boone was found guilty of nine charges brought against him, including three counts of attempted murder; some say the verdict is an example of injustice within Canada’s legal system.
 
HIV-positive community member Elliott Youden, who is a member of Legalize AIDS and Queer Ottawa, says his reaction to the verdict is one of horror and sadness.
 
“Horror that the murder charges are succeeding and sadness that individuals like Steve are not getting the resources that they need with a new HIV diagnosis,” he says. “Steve was a new infection and that news can be overwhelming. Clearly, he didn’t get the support that he needed.”
 
Youden knows Boone personally and says there is no way the defendant intended to murder his sexual partners. Boone got caught up in the bug-chaser subculture, Youden says, a subculture he did not fully understand.

“While he may have been enamoured with risky sex, I don’t think he ever wanted to murder somebody,” Youden says.
Community member Jay Koornstra says the criminalization of the nondisclosure of HIV does more harm than good in the end.
 
“There is no evidence that charges against people living with HIV improve anything to do with public health and safety,” he says. “It has not proven to reduce HIV transmission. It does not encourage disclosure or conversations about HIV.”
 
Both Youden and Koornstra agree that a legal approach to HIV transmission cases is misguided and say approaching these cases from a public health perspective is the better avenue to take.
 
“Locking people up because they are ill-equipped to handle it does nothing to prevent the spread of HIV,” Youden says. “In fact, study after study shows that criminalization serves only to drive HIV underground, thus fostering new infections. I think a health approach needs to be taken so that society at large better understands the condition, [and] better understands what poz folks need, to get them the resources that are needed.”
 
The verdict sends the message that HIV-positive individuals do not take proper health precautions, which Koornstra says is untrue.
 
“The majority of people living with HIV and AIDS — and this has been true over the last 20-plus years — take the steps to protect their health and the health of their sexual partners,” he says. “That is the norm. That is the majority.”
 
Janet Butler-McPhee, director of communications for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (CAHLN), says her organization is awaiting transcripts of the trial before making a definitive judgment on the Boone verdict.

In a statement sent to Xtra, CAHLN wrote, “The Canadian AIDS/HIV Legal Network opposes criminal charges for HIV non-disclosure in cases of otherwise consensual sex, because an overly broad use of the criminal law does more harm than good. We recognize that criminal charges may be warranted in limited circumstances such as those rare occasions where an individual has a malicious intent to infect someone and there is a scientifically significant risk of transmission.”
 
Boone’s lawyer, Ian Carter, declined to comment on the verdict, as his client will stand trial on similar charges Nov 13.
“If [Boone] gives me the okay to say something [after that trial], I may say something at that point,” Carter said.
 
It is easy to interpret the evidence presented at the trial that Boone had malicious intent, as Crown prosecutor Meaghan Cunningham successfully argued. However, many in the community believe he was living out sexual fantasies online, as Carter argued in his defence.
 
Youden says this case is an exception to the rule, and definitely not the rule, when it comes to the criminalization of HIV.
 

“There were a lot of complicated factors in this case, which probably led to the result. On the surface, what was presented is not really what happened,” he says. “I think if Steve would have got the proper care, therapy and resources that should have been afforded to him as someone newly diagnosed with HIV, this case wouldn’t have even happened.”