Despite very low transmission risk, saliva treated as deadly weapon
A gay rights group is questioning a 35-year prison sentence given to an HIV-positive man who was convicted in Dallas of spitting on a police officer, and public health officials say the risk of contracting the AIDS virus from saliva is extremely low.
Prosecutors convinced a jury last week that the man’s spit constituted a deadly weapon, making the long prison term appropriate.
Willie Campbell spit into the eye and open mouth of a Dallas police officer while he was being arrested for public intoxication in 2006, the officer testified. Campbell, 42, had been in prison twice before, making him a habitual offender subject to a sentence of at least 25 years.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no one has ever contracted the AIDS virus from spit.
The Dallas County Health Department issued a statement May 16 that said HIV is usually spread by sexual contact or sharing needles with an infected person or through a transfusion of tainted blood.
The notice said that federal public health officials consider "the risk of HIV transmission from such fluids as saliva and tears to be extremely low."
Bebe Anderson, the HIV projects director at Lambda Legal, a gay rights group, said the verdict could create wrong impressions about how HIV is transmitted.
"It’s been 25 years since the virus was identified, but there are still lots of fears," he told The Dallas Morning News for its May 17 editions. "We are still facing people losing their jobs and fighting for their children because of fears that are unfounded."
Campbell was convicted of harassing a public servant for spitting on police officer Dan Waller. The officer has not tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Dallas County prosecutor who handled the trial, Jenni Morse, said any risk is sufficient to find that Campbell’s spit could be considered a deadly weapon.
"No matter how minuscule, there is some risk," she said. "That means there is the possibility of causing serious bodily injury or death," the legal definition of a deadly weapon.
District Attorney Craig Watkins said "it was clear that the defendant intended to cause serious bodily injury."
While in prison awaiting trial in the spitting case, Campbell bit two inmates and attacked other officers.
Because of the deadly-weapon finding, Campbell will have to serve half his sentence before becoming eligible for parole. He was sentenced May 14.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 23, 2008.