Prosecution for reckless HIV transmission in England ends with not guilty verdict

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A prosecution for reckless transmission of HIV has ended in a not guilty verdict in England for the first time.

The judge at Kingston Upon Thames Crown Court directed the jury to deliver a not guilty verdict. The case involved an HIV-positive gay man who was accused of recklessly infecting his male partner. However, the defence, using evidence supplied by an expert HIV virologist from London’s Royal Free Hospital, successfully argued that phylogenetic analysis could not prove that person A infected person B. Phylogenetic analysis has been used by the prosecution in this and all the previous prosecutions for reckless transmission to show a transmission link between individuals

Evidence also came to light during the trial that the complainant had had unprotected sex with numerous men other than the accused, some of whom were HIV-positive.


phylogenetic analysis

The comparison of the genetic sequence of the virus in different individuals in order to determine the likelihood that two or more samples are related. This involves creating a hypothetical diagram (known as a phylogenetic tree) that estimates how closely related the samples of HIV taken from different individuals are. Phylogenetic analysis is not a reliable way to prove that one individual has infected another, but may identify transmission clusters, which can be useful for public health interventions.

deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

The material in the nucleus of a cell where genetic information is stored.

“We welcome this verdict” said Lisa Power, Head of Policy at the Terrence Higgins Trust, which, along with other HIV organisations in the UK has opposed prosecutions for reckless HIV transmission.

The case is likely to have implications for future prosecutions and could also form the basis for an appeal for some of the individuals convicted so far. “Scientific evidence showing links between the type of virus infecting two people is not proof of direct transmission”, said Lisa Power, adding, “Such evidence doesn’t give the same level of proof as DNA or fingerprint evidence, and it is important people realise this. In the light of this verdict, we hope that the Crown Prosecution Service and police forces will re-evaluate their approach to the use of scientific evidence in HIV transmission cases.”

Other important lessons should also be drawn from this case, emphasised Lisa Power. “The defendant had a marvellous legal team and was very well supported. It’s vitally important that anybody else who finds themselves investigated for the reckless transmission of HIV seeks help and support as soon as possible.”

The acquittal will have the greatest implications for future cases where a complainant has had unprotected sex with multiple individuals, and may well form the basis for an appeal for some of the convictions that have so far occurred.

Last week, Mark James became the first gay man in the UK to be convicted and sentenced for the reckless transmission of HIV. He initially pleaded guilty on the advice of his then defence team because of phylogenetic testing, but subsequently unsuccessfully attempted to change his plea when he was advised that phylogenetic testing did not prove a direct transmission link between individuals. Earlier this summer, Sarah Jane Porter pleaded guilty to the reckless transmission of HIV when faced with phylogenetic evidence. It is likely that the not guilty verdict in the latest case will be studied with great interest by these individuals’ defence teams.