By MIRANDA LEITSINGER
In 2006, a few years after Leslie Flaggs learned she had contracted HIV, she made a new friend at her church in Sioux City, Iowa. As her relationship with the man turned from Bible study to intimacy, Flaggs said, she revealed to him that she had the disease.
But the man went to police in May 2007 and said she hadn’t disclosed her HIV status until after they’d slept together. Flaggs says that because she feared the man – who was convicted of domestic abuse-assault for hitting her two weeks before he filed his complaint, according to court documents – she didn’t challenge his story to police.
Flaggs agreed to a plea bargain rather than face the alternative: up to a quarter century in prison as mandated by a state law targeting criminal exposure to HIV. She received a 25-year suspended sentence, four years of probation and a decade on the sex offender registry. Prosecutors at the time said her accuser did not acquire HIV; the law applies whether or not victims are infected. NBC News could not reach him recently for comment.
For Flaggs, 53, living with the disease and being on the sex offender registry has been so hard that she has contemplated suicide. “This has taken my life," she said. "I feel like I’m in prison.”
But things may soon change for people living with HIV in Iowa: Lawmakers are debating whether to repeal the state law on criminal exposure and replace it with one that would impose more moderate sentences and would better reflect current medical understanding of how the disease is transmitted. If the legislation is approved, Iowa would be one of the first states to revise its decades-old statute that imposes criminal sentences for HIV exposure. HIV/AIDS advocates have long been fighting for such changes to the more than 30 state laws nationwide (PDF), but they’ve often met resistance.
“We’ve got to get this done this year,” said Tami Haught, of an Iowa nonprofit, Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network (Facebook). She last month watched another Iowan receive a sentence similar to Flaggs’, and yet another state resident recently challenged his conviction for not disclosing his status to a partner even though he used a condom. “We can’t open up any other Iowan to this kind of prosecution when it is so unjust.”