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Man claims 'AIDS panic' by SF prosecutors

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Christian Guerrero
Christian Guerrero  

A gay San Francisco man says that prosecutors recently tried unsuccessfully to use an "AIDS panic defense" to convince jurors that he had wanted to infect a sheriff's deputy by biting him during a 2014 altercation.

Christian Guerrero, 38, was acquitted in May on charges including assault on an officer with force likely to cause great bodily injury. Some counts were dismissed after the jury deadlocked.

Guerrero, who's living with HIV, said in an interview that the September 2014 incident he was charged in started because he'd been feeling suicidal.

"I'd been fucked over by a bunch of people," he said. "... I just needed to get over it and lick my wounds."

After he called a crisis line, said Guerrero, he was taken to psychiatric emergency services, or PES, at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. While he was there, he fell asleep, and after he woke up, a clinician tried to ask him questions that he'd "already been asked by other staff."

"I got upset," said Guerrero, and "from there, stuff escalated."

Sheriff's deputies, who provide security at the hospital, came and tried to seclude him in a separate room, but Guerrero refused. The deputies "pushed me, and they got me in a hold with my hands behind my back," he said. "It was really painful."

Guerrero said that as he was being handcuffed, he kicked at one of the deputies, who lost his balance.

"We all started going down," and Deputy Noel Barrantes' forearm came toward his mouth, said Guerrero.

"That's when I bit him, but it wasn't even so much 'bit,' it was like him scratching himself" on Guerrero's "jagged" teeth, he said.

"Somebody at PES disclosed that I was HIV/[hepatitis C]-positive, and immediately after I bit him, I started apologizing. ... I told the deputy who stayed behind, 'Tell your buddy I'm sorry' and 'I didn't mean to bite him.'"

In an incident report, though, Deputy Sukhwant Mann, the other sheriff's deputy involved in the altercation with Guerrero, said that Guerrero had told him, "I have AIDS. I hope your friend catches it and dies."

"I never said that at all," Guerrero told the Bay Area Reporter.

A sheriff's department chronological report of an investigation into the incident says that "while escorting Guerrero," another deputy "overheard [him] say, 'I'm sorry that I bit that deputy.'"

Deputy Public Defender Cris Lamb, who represented Guerrero, said that the only way to get to a charge of assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury was by using the false notion that Guerrero could have transmitted HIV to Barrantes through a bite. Lamb added that Barrantes' wound "didn't require stitches."

"There's no other way to get there," she said of the charge. "It's straight up AIDS panic."

The risk of transmission through a bite is "close to zero, even if there's active bleeding in your mouth," said Lamb, who'd brought in a medical doctor to testify during the case.

Lamb added that after Barrantes was bitten, Mann said, "I'm charging you with aggravated assault" because of Guerrero's alleged statement about trying to give the deputy AIDS.

Guerrero and Lamb said that the alleged comment was repeated during the trial when Mann testified and when Assistant District Attorney Kara Lacy gave her closing arguments.

According to a transcript of the preliminary hearing in the case, when Assistant District Attorney Austin Sanford explained the great bodily injury charge, he said that Guerrero had "admitted to the officers that he had AIDS so it's reasonable to infer ... that there's a possibility of that transmission to the deputy."

Max Szabo, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, told the B.A.R., "The defense argued that Mr. Guerrero somehow accidentally bit the deputy while he was falling down."

Guerrero's alleged statement about hoping the deputy would get AIDS "however, seems to show the defendant intended to cause harm to the officer," said Szabo.

"Allegations that the evidence was used for anything other than proof of the defendant's state of mind boil down to a shameless ploy," Szabo added.

Eileen Hirst, a sheriff's department spokeswoman, said that she was informed "the decision to seek felony assault charges were based on the severity of the injury and the nature of it. It was not a decision made based on Mr. Guerrero's announcement to us that he was HIV-positive."

Guerrero said, "I got the verdict I was searching for, and I'm not going to bite anybody anymore if I can help it."

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