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Officially, the charge, buried in Chapter 709 of the Iowa code, is “criminal transmission of HIV.” But no transmission had occurred.

“I was saying, ‘Well, OK, why should I propose if I’m scared of dying in 10 years?

And if we do have a kid, then I might die and leave my kid without a father, like I grew up without a mother.’” The fear is “choking” and “silencing,” he said.

But some health and legal experts say using criminal penalties to curtail the epidemic could backfire and fuel the spread of HIV.

According to the CDC, 1.1 million Americans are currently living with HIV, but one-fifth of them don’t know it.

The laws “place all of the responsibility on one party: the party that’s HIV-positive,” said Scott Schoettes, a lawyer who supervises HIV litigation for Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group.

“And they lull people who are not HIV-positive — or at least think they are not HIV-positive — into believing that they don’t have to do anything.

The national tally is surely higher, because at least 35 states have laws that specifically criminalize exposing another person to HIV. In 60 cases for which extensive documentation could be obtained, Pro Publica found just four involving complainants who actually became infected with HIV.

Even in such cases, it can be hard to prove who transmitted the virus without genetic tests matching the accused’s HIV strain to their accuser’s.

“One thing that makes this case difficult is you don’t look like our usual criminals,” Harris said. But you created a situation that was just as dangerous as anyone who did that.” The judge meted out Rhoades’ sentence: 25 years in prison.

“Often times for the court it is easy to tell when someone is dangerous. His crime: having sex without first disclosing he had HIV.

A national group of AIDS public health officials later submitted a brief estimating that the odds of Rhoades infecting Plendl were “likely zero or near zero.” After his lawyers petitioned the court, Rhoades’ prison sentence was changed to five years’ probation.