By Jonathan Osborne American-Statesman Staff Saturday, April 14, 2001 Knowing he was HIV-positive, Paul Leslie Hollingsworth slept with a co-worker in 1997 — one of at least five women whom prosecutors say Hollingsworth had unprotected sex with after his 1987 diagnosis.
Not long after, the woman also tested positive for the virus, which causes AIDS.
In what is believed to be the first case of its kind in Texas, Austin police charged Hollingsworth with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. On Friday, he pleaded guilty and received nine months’ deferred adjudication, a form of probation.
Prosecutors said the short sentence is due partly to the fact that Hollingsworth, 46, is in the advanced stages of AIDS and likely wouldn’t live long enough to face a jury. But the case raises significant issues.
Should knowingly transmitting a deadly disease be against the law? If so, which diseases warrant criminal prosecution? Should the government have the right to seize otherwise confidential medical information — currently, police can investigate a person’s HIV status only in sex-crime investigations — and place them in court files, making them public? Because Hollingsworth’s case didn’t go before a jury, these legal and public policy questions will remain unaired and unanswered for now, unless Texas lawmakers address them. Shortly after donating blood in 1987, according to court documents, the blue-collar worker learned from a blood center on North Lamar Boulevard that he had HIV, a virus that had entered mainstream American conversation only six years earlier. Hollingsworth at first sought treatment, but, according to court documents, his ex-wife said he later developed an ” `I don’t care’ attitude and began drinking heavily.” Officials said his ex-wife did not test positive for HIV.
In 1997, Hollingsworth started working as an orderly at the Austin State Hospital, where he began a relationship with another employee. They became friends, he gave her rides home from work, and in March of that year, they began having unprotected sex, the documents said. The woman later noticed that Hollingsworth had a fungal infection called thrush in his mouth, which she recognized as a symptom of HIV. After talking to a co-worker who had also dated Hollingsworth and who tested positive for the virus, the woman was tested and diagnosed with HIV, the documents said.
Hollingsworth insisted he had never been tested, but the woman later learned from his mother that he was aware of his condition, the documents said. Police located four other women who said they had had unprotected sex with Hollingsworth, but they know of only one who later tested HIV-positive.
Police charged Hollingsworth with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in November 1998. According to the lawyers in the case and an AIDS educator, it’s the first time in Texas a person has been charged with knowingly transmitting HIV during consensual sex. “He knew he had HIV, he didn’t tell her, he didn’t use protection, and he knew that he was putting her at serious risk,” Travis County Assistant District Attorney Bill Mange said. Hollingsworth’s lawyer, David Frank, said his client did not admit to intentionally transmitting the virus. Regardless, he should not bear the full responsibility, Frank said. “These were two adults having consensual heterosexual sex,” he said. “They weren’t exercising caution — neither one of them was.”
Prosecuting someone who knowingly transmits HIV could discourage people from getting tested, Frank argued. He also said it opens the floodgates for prosecuting the transmission of other diseases. “I can envision a case where someone who knows they have the flu then gives it to an elderly person who dies,” he said. “The possibilities exist for prosecution of even that type of offense.”
“We could toss hypotheticals back and forth all day,” Mange said. “I don’t think there’s any question as to who infected the victim here.”
Sandy Bartlett, an education coordinator with AIDS Services of Austin, said AIDS educators who in the past concentrated on making people aware of their responsibility to avoid contracting the disease have recently tried to focus more on the responsibilities of those who have HIV. Being able to prosecute reckless behavior is critical to that message, he said. “The responsibility is not equal,” Bartlett said. “The HIV-affected person knows that he or she is infected, and it is their obligation first and foremost to exercise responsibility.”
Hollingsworth’s case also calls into question whether police should be allowed to seize medical records and use them as evidence in court. Under Texas law, Mange said, police can investigate a person’s HIV status only in sexual assault cases.
However, in 1998, District Judge Tom Blackwell issued a search warrant allowing investigators to seize Hollingsworth’s medical records. Later, District Judge Julie Kocurek ruled that much of that evidence was not admissible in court.
That is a broader philosophical question that lawmakers will have to decide, Mange said. “It’s a tragedy for everyone,” he said. “The most important thing here is that the law criminalizes his conduct, not his disease.”