Throughout Western New York, Nushawn Williams has been known for 16 years as a sexual predator who infected young women with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
But Williams, 36, appeared in State Supreme Court in Erie County on Tuesday to argue that he never had the virus.
His attorney, John R. Nuchereno, dropped the bombshell revelation Tuesday morning in a hearing before Justice John L. Michalski.
“He doesn’t have HIV,” Nuchereno said. “Now, it doesn’t just go away, and it leads me to believe the victim in this case is right here. His liberty has been denied for 16 years.”
Nuchereno had a sample of Williams’ blood sent to the Core Electron Microscopy Facility at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where an analysis showed no HIV, according to a report by Gregory Hendricks, a cell biologist and the facility manager.
In February 1999, Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree (statutory) rape and one count of reckless endangerment for his Chautauqua County crimes. Authorities have said he infected at least 13 young Chautauqua County women, including one 13-year-old, with the virus that leads to AIDS.
After his plea, Williams, in an interview with a New York City television station, said he had slept with 200 to 300 young women before he was put behind bars.
Williams’ 12-year prison term ended in April 2010, but he continues to be held in Wende State Correctional Facility under a state law that permits civil confinement of sex offenders. A trial had been scheduled for this summer in Chautauqua County to decide whether the state can prolong his confinement.
When his story broke in 1996, Nushawn Williams made headlines around the world. He was widely portrayed as a pariah, and Chautauqua County was thrust into the spotlight as an unlikely hotbed of sordid sexual activity and drug use among teens.
Tuesday’s hearing brought the furor back to the forefront.
Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace had trouble making sense of Williams’ new claim in court.
“I think it’s a desperate effort to try to get him released from custody,” said Gerace, who has been sheriff since 1995. “I don’t recall any claim that he wasn’t HIV-positive. In fact, it was shown in court that he was HIV-positive and continued to have unprotected sex with girls as young as 13. That’s what made it so heinous.”
But Nuchereno said Williams wasn’t made aware of the HIV test results until shortly before he was arrested and after the public was warned about him.
“He wasn’t told. That’s always been a major contention. It was never litigated,” Nuchereno said.
Williams now goes by the name Shyteek Johnson, largely to shield himself from notoriety in prison, Nuchereno said.
“His name’s been slandered across the country. He has been a target in the Department of Corrections. He’s notorious,” Nuchereno said after Tuesday’s hearing.
Handcuffed and wearing green prison garments, Williams listened intently to the court deliberations.
Lawyers for the State Attorney General’s Office questioned whether the blood sample was properly handled and whether the electron microscopy is a scientifically valid method for detecting HIV.
“It’s sort of a Pandora’s box at this point, this test,” said Joseph Muia Jr., an assistant attorney general. “The information we have is that the electron microscope testing is not the gold standard, so to speak, of testing in this area.”
Muia also suggested that with proper treatment, HIV-infected people can have their “viral loads” reduced to the point that the virus becomes undetectable.
“That may be what we have here,” said Muia, who asked the judge to allow the state to draw Williams’ blood and do more testing.
Assistant Attorney General Wendy R. Whiting reminded the judge that Williams admitted to his crimes, and medical experts are able to link people infected with HIV to a source of the infection.
“Links can be made that, at a minimum, many parties came up HIV-positive,” Whiting said.
Nuchereno tried to cast doubt on those links.
“My concern with the victims is I don’t know if they were even properly tested,” he said. Back in 1996, HIV testing was still relatively new and potentially riddled with error, Nuchereno said. “It was the equivalent of taking a home pregnancy test,” he said.
Williams’ HIV-positive status stuck, even though the test wasn’t confirmed, Nuchereno said.
“Everybody’s just assumed it all along – and, most importantly, he even assumed it,” he said. “He accepted those results. He stated, ‘They must be true because the government told me that.’ ”
Muia said Williams was tested four times a year for HIV in prison, but when pressed by Michalski, the state’s lawyers said they did not have documentation of such testing.
That’s because it did not happen, Nuchereno said.
“They kept telling him, ‘We’re treating you, but we don’t find any evidence of the virus,’ ” he said.
Williams stopped taking HIV medication in preparation for the electron microscopy, Nuchereno said. He has remained off of HIV drugs since discovering the results of the test in April.