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Dallas Morning News
35-year sentence for HIV-positive spitter worries some
Tiara M. Ellis,
May 17, 2008
Prosecutors convinced a Dallas County jury this week that HIV-positive saliva should be considered a deadly weapon.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and countless doctors say no one has ever contracted the virus from spit.

And that's why several AIDS advocacy groups and many individuals contend that the 35-year sentence Willie Campbell received Wednesday for spitting into the mouth and eye of a Dallas police officer was excessive.

Mr. Campbell was convicted of harassment of a public servant. Because of the jury's deadly weapon finding, he will have to serve half of his sentence before he's eligible for parole. The police officer, Dan Waller, has not contracted HIV.

Neither Mr. Campbell nor his attorney, Russ Henrichs, could be reached Friday for comment.

Also Friday, the Dallas County Health Department issued a statement about HIV transmission. The statement said that "HIV is usually spread by sexual contact with an infected person, by sharing needles with someone who is infected, or by transfusions with infected blood products." The statement went on to say that the "U.S. Public Health Service guidelines determines the risk of HIV transmission from such fluids as saliva and tears to be extremely low."

Dr. R. Doug Hardy, an infectious disease specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Children's Medical Center Dallas, also said that fluids in people's eyes and mouths have very low risk of transmitting HIV. The higher risk is for Hepatitis B and C and syphilis, he said.

But Dallas County prosecutor Jenni Morse, who handled Mr. Campbell's case, said any risk level is sufficient for the deadly weapon finding used during the trial.

"No matter how minuscule, there is some risk," said Ms. Morse. "That means there is the possibility of causing serious bodily injury or death," the legal definition of a deadly weapon.

A woman who said she is HIV-positive said the jury's decision to call Mr. Campbell's saliva a deadly weapon was ridiculous.

"I'm sure he deserves some sort of punishment," said the East Texas woman, who grew up in Dallas. "But I don't think his HIV status should have any bearing at all."

The woman, who asked that her name not be used because of the stigma the disease still carries, questioned what this jury's decision says about how people perceive her being a mother of a child who does not have HIV.

"So if I say to my child, 'Let me have a sip of your drink,' and there's a chance that my saliva might be in that cup, does that mean I am using a deadly weapon?"

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said, however, that Mr. Campbell can't be compared to a loving mother.

"If you look at the facts of this case, it was clear that the defendant intended to cause serious bodily injury," said Mr. Watkins. "There's an intent factor. When a mother kisses her child, her intent is affection."

Mr. Campbell's sentence was nearly double that given the same day to a man being tried in a courtroom next door. That man, De Leon Vanegas Jr., was sentenced to 18 years in prison for giving "cheese" heroin to a 15-year-old boy who died after using the drug. The jury in that case declared heroin a deadly weapon.

Mr. Campbell had served time in prison twice, labeling him a habitual offender and starting his sentence time at 25 years. While in prison awaiting trial for this case, evidence showed, Mr. Campbell bit two inmates and attacked other officers.

Bebe Anderson, the HIV projects director at Lambda Legal, a legal organization for gay men, lesbians and people with HIV/AIDS, said the decision by Mr. Campbell's jury could cause further misconceptions about HIV and how it's transmitted.

"It's been 25 years since the virus was identified, but there are still lots of fears," said Ms. Anderson. "We are still facing people losing their jobs and fighting for their children because of fears that are unfounded."