More HIV victims speak out

More HIV victims speak out

July 30th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

James Hutchins

On Wednesday, James Hutchins was arrested and charged with giving HIV to his pregnant wife.

On Friday, at least four other women with HIV were linked to him.

One died in 2005 when she was 28 years old, documents show. She was the mother of three children.

One tested negative for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, on Friday after hearing the news of Hutchins' arrest. She said she was grateful.

One was infected in 1992 and, with medication, says the virus is so scarce in her system now, it's undetectable.

In 1997, one learned she was pregnant and HIV-positive in the same day. The woman, 41, takes medication and remains healthy, according to her family. But she pressed charges of criminal exposure to HIV against Hutchins. In 1999, he was sentenced to six months in jail and five years of probation.

But local HIV/AIDS experts say there are probably more women carrying the lingering effect of sex with Hutchins.

"It's a domino effect. We're going to have more people come in the door from this guy," said Jerry Evans, assistant executive director of Chattanooga CARES, a local nonprofit that specializes in HIV and AIDS prevention,

People who test positive are told to disclose their status to sex partners, Evans said. "We're very big talking about honesty and disclosure with partners."

Hutchins didn't, at least not all the time.

A few months ago, Hutchins' 29-year-old pregnant wife went for lab work and learned she has the virus. She recently filed the charge of criminal exposure to HIV that landed him in Hamilton County Jail.

Hutchins, 46, could not be reached for comment on Friday and jail personnel declined to pass on an interview request. Hutchins declined an interview request earlier this week.

Denise Jennings is one of the lucky ones. Infected in 1992, she is living in Atlanta and doing well, with almost no trace of the virus still detectable in her body. But she still feels guilty for not doing a better job on getting the word out about Hutchins.

"He's still hurting people," she said. "That's the hardest thing for me.

He needs to be stopped. That's like someone putting a bullet in a gun and spinning it."

And she feels especially bad for his new wife.

"I saw him and his wife last year," she said. "I felt like, 'I should tell her,' but I didn't. I thought he needs to do it. Even in seeing me, he couldn't look at me. He dropped his head. And I just thought, 'I just pray he's doing the right thing.'"

Jennings said Hutchins was with a thin woman with three children in tow. His wife has three children from a previous relationship.

"[His wife] looked over at me. They were happy and smiling," Jennings said. "It is so sad."

The mother of the woman who charged Hutchins in 1999 said she wasn't surprised when she heard the news that his wife had HIV and filed new charges against him. She remembers when he was first convicted.

"It was like he got a slap on the wrist," the woman said. "What's to stop him from doing it? They need to plaster his picture everywhere because people need to know. Somebody needs to tell them. There's going to be plenty more, probably."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone is infected with HIV every 9 1/2 minutes. In Hamilton County, there are 1,425 people infected with HIV, according to 2009 statistics. About 100 people are infected each year in the Southeast Tennessee area, Evans said.

Evans said an HIV positive test result is not a death sentence any more.

"It's all about letting them know, it's not all over. You still have a life. This thing is more manageable than it's ever been," he said. "As long as you take your medication, 90 percent of our clients' [viral counts] are undetectable. It doesn't mean you don't have HIV; it just means the viral load is tiny.

If convicted, Hutchins could receive a maximum sentence of six years in prison. According to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, his only conviction in Tennessee is his prior HIV charge.

His next court date is set for Aug. 2 before General Sessions Court Judge David Bale.

Jennings said she always disclosed her status to anyone she became intimate with.

"I tell my status before a handshake or a kiss," said Jennings, who is now married. "And you can accept me or not."

And she doesn't mind sharing her story because it helps others.

"This is me. This is what happened and this is what could happen to you," she said. "This can take anybody's life. It doesn't discriminate. You can go out and do something one time. It goes far and beyond. It's still happening."

To those infected, Jennings wants them to know there is life after testing positive.

"I've never been hospitalized," Jennings said. "I have an undetectable viral load. I feel wonderful."