Welsh woman given two year sentence in reckless HIV transmission case: widespread media misreporting (update)

A young Welsh woman, aged 20, was sentenced to two years' youth custody yesterday after pleading guilty under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Section 20, for 'recklessly inflicting grievous bodily harm' by transmitting HIV to her former boyfriend, a young man also aged 20. It is the first time that a conviction for reckless HIV transmission has been secured in Wales by the Crown Prosecution Service, and the woman - who was aged 18 when the HIV transmission is alleged to have occurred - is the first female in the United Kingom to be successfully prosecuted for HIV transmission.

The details of the case, which is widely reported today in English and Welsh newspapers, are somewhat sketchy, but can be pieced together from the various news stories, most of which rely on one original report from the Press Association.

It should be noted that the headlines and opening paragraphs of the majority of the news stories have misrepresented the legal situation, claiming that the young woman "deliberately infected" (The Telegraph, Daily Post, Western Mail, The Sun, and The Mirror) the young man. Only The Times, who may have had their own reporter in the courtroom, used the less inflammatory phrase, "knowingly infected".

However, BBC Online, removed the word "deliberately" from the story by Tuesday lunchtime after legal expert James Chalmers, Lecturer in Law at the University of Aberdeen, emailed them on Monday night expressing concern over their reporting of the case. Mr Chalmers says that the Press Association's reporter later admitted to the BBC that she was wrong to use the words "deliberate" in her original report of the young woman's guilty plea, which had suggested to the BBC (and others) that this was the first case of deliberate HIV transmission. The BBC are now taking up the issue with the Press Association.

The woman from Newport, Gwent - who cannot be named, according to press reports, in order to protect the identity of the young man - acquired HIV at the age of 15 through heterosexual sex, the court was told in a letter from the woman. "I was 15 when I slept with a boy but I thought it was love," she wrote. The Western Mail quotes the young woman's barrister, Timothy Hills as saying: "She became HIV-positive when she became infected by another man. She has got a pretty good idea who that man is but he has not been prosecuted for infecting her."

The couple met in a nightclub in September 2002 when they were both 18 years old, and began a relationship. Condoms were used at first, but soon after they began living together, the couple began having unprotected sex, apparently in an attempt to conceive, according to a report in The Sun.

The young woman tested HIV antibody positive in June 2003, but at the time did not disclose this to her boyfriend. The court heard she did not tell him because she feared that if she did, he would leave her. "I just didn't want to believe I had HIV," the young woman said in a letter to the court that was widely reported. "I know I hurt you but I didn't know how to tell you. I just hoped and prayed you wouldn't catch it. I know it was a horrible thing to do."

The Sun also reports the woman alleging that "health staff had told her that it was almost impossible for a woman to pass on the virus." (The newspaper's health editor, Jacqui Thornton, writes misleadingly at the end of the article that it is "far harder for a woman to pass on HIV to a man...A man is at risk if he has a cut on his penis or gives a girl oral sex.")

The couple split "early" in 2004, according to the BBC's website, because the young man suspected that his girlfriend was being unfaithful, and, according to the BBC, "he then began hearing rumours about her HIV status." The young woman told her boyfriend that she was HIV-positive in April 2004, according to various reports, but it is unclear whether they had split-up at this time. However, it appears that the young man didn't take an HIV antibody test until December 2004, according to the BBC, who report that he "discovered he was HIV-positive ten days before Christmas 2004". However, it was widely reported that the couple had had unprotected sex for ten months.

Prosecutor Andrew Jones is reported by The Telegraph to have said: "She was HIV positive and chose not to inform her boyfriend. He later began to hear rumours and went to visit her. He asked her if the rumours were true about her HIV status. She told him, 'Don't be so stupid.' She even showed him paperwork that proved that she was not HIV positive. He now believes that paperwork was altered."

The young man's victim impact statement, read aloud in court, was also widely reported: "I will never forget the day I went to the clinic with my father and my brother and I was told that I was HIV-positive," he wrote. "I can never forgive her for what she has done and the terrible pain my family is going through. My mum brought me up always to tell the truth. My mum worries about me all the time and my dad has had an angina attack. My mum didn't like her from the start but I was 18 years old and she was my first proper girlfriend and I had to learn from my own mistakes. And learn I did, the hard way.”

During sentencing, Judge Christopher Llewellyn Jones was reported by The Times to have said: “You never told your boyfriend and as a result he is now HIV-positive. You even sought to mislead him. His health is now devastated for life. In my judgement what you did to that man is so serious that only a custodial sentence can be justified. It is plain that no sentence I can impose will restore the health of that man, but I must impose a sentence which brings home to people the seriousness of this type of offence.”

Although the sentence was two years in a young offenders' institute, the Daily Post reported that she will actually serve one year in custody. Mr Chalmers adds that this is correct. "Because she has been sentenced to less than four years, she is a 'short-term prisoner' and entitled to automatic release on license after she has served half of her sentence."

The Welsh woman is the fifth – and youngest – person to be successfully prosecuted under English and Welsh law for "reckless transmission" of HIV, and the sixth person in the UK to be sentenced for transmitting HIV since 2001. The other five were men; one Scottish, one Portuguese and three African nationals.