Nushawn Williams, the Jamestown man who gained national notoriety when accused of spreading the virus that causes AIDS, remains behind bars more than 15 years after his criminal offenses in Chautauqua County.
But when a 20-year-old Buffalo man admitted in 2011 to having unprotected sex with four young women and a 15-year-old girl while knowing he was infected with HIV, he was sentenced to a year in jail for his crimes.
“It was similar enough to say, ‘My God, the treatment was so different,’ ” said John R. Nuchereno, defense attorney for Williams.
Williams, now 36, was supposed to be freed in 2010, upon completing a 12-year sentence for a statutory rape and reckless endangerment conviction.
Yet, three years later, he remains in Wende State Correctional Facility because the state attorney general contends Williams is a sexual predator likely to infect others with HIV.
The trial, while not open to the public, is expected to draw plenty of interest, both from civil liberties groups troubled by the state’s civil confinement policy and from various HIV and AIDS organizations intrigued by the potential legal impacts of the case.
Nuchereno already has made the stunning claim in a pretrial hearing that Williams does not have HIV, based on a recent electron microscope analysis of his blood by the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine.
The contention appears likely to be a crux of Williams’ defense, which is being aided by the Office of Medical and Scientific Justice, a nonprofit organization based in Studio City, Calif.
The group runs the HIV Innocence Project and has used electron microscopy results in military trials to help defend soldiers accused of transmitting the virus to sexual partners.
G. Baron Coleman, an Alabama lawyer connected with the Office of Medical and Scientific Justice who has represented several soldiers, is expected to assist Nuchereno in at least a portion of his defense of Williams.
Lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office questioned the legitimacy of the electron microscope test and asked State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski to allow them to do their own analysis of Williams’ blood.
Rules of law prohibited Michalski from agreeing to the request.
But several medical professionals and HIV experts contacted by The News said the electron microscope was not an accepted method for finding HIV or for monitoring a patient infected with the virus.
“Electron microscopy is not, never has been and never will be an appropriate, relevant or approved way to detect HIV in the blood. Indeed, it’s beyond silly suggesting it could, would or should be used for this purpose,” said John Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
‘A little bit out of left field’
Williams’ blood was analyzed in April by Gregory M. Hendricks, manager of the Core Electron Microscopy Facility at the UMass Medical School, who found “no evidence” of HIV, according to a letter he sent to the Office of Medical and Scientific Justice.
Dr. Joseph S. Cervia, clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, noted that blood tests screening for the presence of HIV antibodies have been used reliably for years to determine whether someone has HIV.
HIV, AIDS ‘denialists’
Seth Kalichman, an HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment researcher, expressed concern that the startling legal strategy in the Williams case will mislead people about accepted science with regard to diagnosing and treating HIV.
The Office of Medical and Scientific Justice and its executive director, Clark Baker, are HIV and AIDS denialists, Kalichman said.
And he said their efforts are potentially damaging to public health.
“They have no credibility. They’re not really scientists at all,” Kalichman said.
The organization has become adept at trying to manipulate juries in court-martial cases by raising suspicions about HIV tests and the influence of big pharmaceutical companies, he said.
And that’s potentially destructive, because some people who test HIV positive can’t deal with the reality and will seek out the misinformation put out by AIDS denialists as a source of comfort, said Kalichman.
“These guys provide them with a way out,” he said. “There have been people who have died because they listened to these people.”
HIV status matters
Baker, though, contends that the standard tests to detect HIV are unreliable and useless and that the electron microscope “is the only device that will see” the virus.
“If he’s infected with it, why wouldn’t it be there?” said Baker, who began examining Williams’ case in 2010.
Baker said he looked through hundreds of pages of Williams’ medical records and found no evidence of a proper HIV diagnosis.
“If you’re going to accuse somebody of being infected with HIV, you’d better have some evidence,” he said.
Authorities accused Williams of infecting at least 13 young Chautauqua County females, including a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old.
The case never went to trial, so the public didn’t get a close look at the criminal evidence against him.
Nuchereno said his client has been contacted over the years by numerous groups that “have offered assistance, including mainline HIV organizations because they see this as criminalization of a disease.”
Law affected plea deal
After completing his prison term for his admitted sex crimes, Williams now is subject to a law that was passed nearly eight years after he pleaded guilty with the understanding that he would be released from prison in no more than 12 years.
In effect, the plea deal has changed, even though Williams never consented to the changes.
“It’s really unforgiveable in 2013. This application of the law is informed by grossly outdated misunderstandings of HIV, and the state should really be ashamed about it,” said Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the Center for HIV Law & Policy in New York City.
Hanssens said we still don’t know “who infected who” in the Williams case, and the state’s civil confinement law makes it possible for anyone with HIV to be held indefinitely for infecting a sexual partner.
But Burstein maintained that the state has a case no matter what Williams’ HIV status may be because of Williams’ “known predatory behavior with young girls.”
“Regardless of whether he was positive or negative, that’s just unconscionable,” she said. “Developmentally, 13- and 15-year-olds don’t have the cognitive ability to understand what they’re consenting to.”
Thomas Shevory, who wrote a book chronicling the media spectacle around the case, said he has no idea whether the current legal strategy will persuade a jury.
But Shevory, who has kept in contact with Williams, is convinced Williams is not a threat and that he wants to get out of jail, get a job and be with his wife and four children in Virginia.
“At this point, for what he’s accused of, even if he’s guilty – which I’m not convinced of – 15 years is long enough,” said Shevory.