It's The First Charge Of Attempted Manslaughter For Knowingly Spreading The Virus. In Finland, Hiv Case Makes Headlines

Posted: April 07, 1997

HELSINKI — In this land of white summer nights and butter-yellow blondes, the black man's photograph on the front page of the afternoon tabloid was likely to attract notice. The headline guaranteed it: ``This man has HIV.''

Now, two months after Steven Thomas' face first became a staple feature in the Finnish press, there is hardly a person here who has not heard of the charming 35-year-old American expatriate, an aspiring rap singer, habitue of the Helsinki club scene, and the first person in Finland charged with attempted manslaughter for knowingly spreading the AIDS virus.

With all its racial, sexual, moral and legal complexities, the case has riveted this traditionally tolerant Nordic country, which happens to have the lowest incidence of AIDS in Europe. The Finnish media not only published Thomas' name and picture - forgoing the common practice of shielding the identity of people infected with HIV - but they also have chronicled in lurid detail his romantic exploits in Helsinki's free-and-easy nightclubs.

Thomas' sexual habits are now a topic for dissection and debate by talk-show psychiatrists. His television debut as rap artist ``Doggy Steve from Harlem'' has been rebroadcast, and a racy magazine just published a big spread about Thomas' noticeably pregnant Finnish girlfriend, including a full-page shot of Thomas that dwells on his heavily muscled, bare chest.

``For a while, you couldn't open a newspaper without seeing Steven Thomas' face,'' observed Bengt Lindblom, director of the Finnish AIDS Council, who was dismayed by the hysteria that the unprecedented publicity has engendered. His center has been flooded with calls from anxious women who have vague recollections of dalliances with black men, and in some discos women steer clear of all foreigners for fear of contracting the disease.

``I don't think they would have published that picture if he had been a white Finnish man, and middle class,'' Lindblom said. Although there are probably no more than 3,000 blacks in Finland - mostly Somalian refugees - Lindblom said they have been made to ``feel they are the main AIDS bearers.''

In most media accounts, Thomas - who moved to Helsinki in 1992 to marry a Finnish woman - is cast as an odd mixture of villain, victim and sex symbol. Because his trial is now being held behind closed doors to protect the privacy of his sex partners, police have released few details. But right after he was charged, a police official claimed that Thomas had recklessly exposed more than 100 women to the virus, and that at least six of his partners already had tested positive.

Thomas' attorney, Aarno Arvela, argues that the numbers are exaggerated, but he does not dispute that his client led a busy sex life. ``He obviously acted in a wrong way, but this area of human behavior is very complicated for the courts,'' Arvela said. ``I also can't avoid the idea that there are responsibilities for both parties in these kind of one-night affairs.''

He is trying to have the charge against Thomas downgraded to assault, instead of attempted manslaughter, which has a 15-year maximum sentence. If convicted of assault, Thomas might get probation.

More than anything, it is the descriptions of the promiscuous lifestyle at Helsinki's nightclubs that have shocked the sexually liberal Finns. Most of the women who slept with Thomas met him at the Jambo Club, a notorious pickup spot near Helsinki's downtown train station that attracted black immigrant men and white Finnish women.

Many of Thomas' partners never learned his name and, despite the presence of colorful condom ads on Helsinki streets, they never bothered with such protection. After the newspapers published Thomas' picture, some outraged readers even demanded that they also publish photos of his female partners.

Working as a bouncer at the now-defunct Jambo Club, Thomas was able to meet and sleep with dozens of women, Police Detective Terho Maki said in an interview.

``We have evidence that he knew he was positive'' since 1993, Maki said. ``He was told by his doctor how to conduct safe sex . . . and that he had to tell his partner. He was given the instructions in English, so the issue isn't that he didn't know.'' Thomas was taking medication for his illness, and had been occasionally hospitalized for treatment.

``The situation is the same if you have a gun, walk into a crowd of 20 or 30 people, and go pong-pong-pong,'' Maki said. ``The difference in this case, however, is that the weapon is the penis.''

In Finland in 1993, a Ugandan who knew he was HIV positive was charged with raping several women, and a Finnish homosexual was charged with knowingly infecting his lover with the HIV virus the same year. But only Thomas has been charged with infecting a large number of consensual sex partners.

Although other countries have prosecuted people who recklessly spread HIV, most of the cases involve biting and spitting. Prosecution for sexually transmitting AIDS is rare, said Scott Burris, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in HIV-related civil rights cases. Perhaps that's because it's much harder to transmit the killer disease than to kill someone with a gun, he noted. The odds of contracting HIV are about 1 in 250 for each contact.

``The problem with such cases is the usual complexity of sexual relationships,'' Burris said. ``Why AIDS continues to be transmitted sexually, when there are easy precautions, continues to be the $64,000 question.''

Maki started investigating the case after a woman who said she contracted HIV from Thomas filed a formal complaint against him. ``I see him every night with a different girl. I want it to stop,'' she told police, according to her attorney, Markku Fredman. A week later, a second woman complained to police about Thomas, Maki said. Laboratory tests proved that both were infected with the same variant of HIV as Thomas'.

The police detective began to worry that he had a local epidemic on his hands. ``I decided that I had to give the picture of Steven Thomas to the newspapers. . . . I didn't know how many girls are in danger. . . . I couldn't sleep at night thinking about it,'' he recalled.

It was Maki's claim that Thomas had exposed more than 100 women to the virus that persuaded the fiercely competitive Finnish newspapers to publish his photograph and accounts of his relationships.

``We felt people needed to be warned, because some women didn't know they had been exposed,'' explained Susanna Reinboth, a crime reporter for Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's most respected daily. At the same time, her editors were concerned about a backlash. ``Because Steven Thomas was a foreigner and black, we worried that there could be violence against foreigners,'' she said.

Although there are far fewer foreigners living in Finland than in most European states, its immigrant population has tripled since 1989 to 65,000 (only a handful of them American blacks). The arrival of so many newcomers occurred just as Finland was liberating itself from the Soviet Union's influence in the early 1990s.

In the minds of many Finns, crime and immigration are linked. ``Tell me,'' said Maki, ``what kind of foreigners would leave their homeland to come to Finland, the land of ice and snow?''

For some, the rising number of immigrants also explains the rise in the number of HIV cases. The disease is still relatively rare in Finland: 800 cases in a population of five million. But after Thomas' picture appeared in the paper, there was a spike in the monthly reported cases. The papers dubbed the rise the ``Steven Thomas peak.''

Few other societies have been so zealous as Finland in using the law to contain the spread of HIV. Before Thomas was charged with attempted manslaughter, Finnish police had compelled one woman with HIV to testify against her HIV-infected husband - also a black immigrant - in a rape case. Recently, two Russian prostitutes working in Finland were denied visas after they tested positive for HIV.

Their photographs did not appear in newspapers, however. ``This is the kind of punishment that excludes you from society,'' complained Arvela, Thomas' attorney, who noted that his client's notoriety has badly affected his two children and his Finnish former wife. ``To me, it is in the style of Finland's old `punishment of shame,' when they used to chain criminals to a pole outside the church.''

Lindblom also questions whether prosecuting people for transmitting HIV will really help stop its spread.

``I don't think a criminal court is the right place to deal with this,'' he said. ``It's not ethically right what Steven Thomas was doing, but giving him a long sentence won't stop HIV from spreading. It can raise a false sense of security that the carrier is behind bars.''

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