BOOKS

Criminal negligence

Charles Ssenyonga infected 10 women with AIDS

NORA UNDERWOOD May 22 1995
BOOKS

Criminal negligence

Charles Ssenyonga infected 10 women with AIDS

NORA UNDERWOOD May 22 1995

Criminal negligence

Charles Ssenyonga infected 10 women with AIDS

TRIAL WITHOUT END By June Callwood

(Knopf, 401 pages, $29.95)

In the fall of 1988, a woman in her mid20s went to a Toronto clinic and asked to be tested for exposure to HIV, the virus that is believed to cause AIDS. The clinic worker told her she had nothing to worry about: North American heterosexual women simply were not a real risk group. But it turned out that the woman had, in fact, been infected with HIV—and, because she knew so little about it, she thought that she had only weeks to live. Not only was she one of the first Canadian women diagnosed with the virus, she was also one of several women to be infected by the same man. In her latest book, Trial Without End, Toronto journalist June Callwood delivers the shocking tale of Charles Ssenyonga, a well-educated and charming Ugandan living in London, Ont., who knowingly spread the AIDS virus. And the book chronicles the legal proceedings

against Ssenyonga, one of the first people in Canada to face AIDS-related charges.

Ssenyonga had a kind of magnetic appeal that won over almost all who met him. A one-time law student at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, Ssenyonga was, writes Callwood, “among the cream” of young people in his East African country, a “big man on campus” in democratic student politics. Two years after the army under Milton Obote took control of Uganda in 1980, Ssenyonga fled to Canada, where—despite a political science degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, he became a shopkeeper in London.

Callwood first learned of Ssenyonga through her family doctor, Cheryl Wagner, who happened to be treating some of his victims. Wagner had discovered that a few of her patients had contracted the virus from the same man, and she complained to health authorities, who in turn advised Ssenyonga not to have unprotected sex. But he ignored the warnings, and infected another woman. The London health officer then laid a restraining order on him, commanding him not to have sex. Again he ignored it. And again he infected another woman. In early 1993, after Ssenyonga had been arrested, Callwood—already known for her interest in AIDS—decided that a book about the case might help raise awareness of the disease.

One of the most chilling incidents involved “Francine Dalton” (the women’s real names

are protected by a court order), a social worker in her early 30s who had met Ssenyonga at a music festival in Toronto. (By this time, Ssenyonga had known for months that he was HIV-positive and had already knowingly infected two other women.) It took Dalton only a few meetings to feel completely enthralled with him. “He was extremely charming, intelligent, fun to be with,” Dalton later testified. “He conveyed a sense of trust. He said that I could trust him.” During sex, Ssenyonga agreed to wear a condom, but at the last moment pulled it off.

Soon after, Dalton, was struck by what she, like all of the other women Ssenyonga infected, at first thought was a severe case of flu. Her condition mystified her doctor. One month later, with her health still poor, she had a blood test that confirmed that she had been exposed to HIV. Wagner told Callwood: “What is fascinating and frightening about Ssenyonga is that he managed to infect every woman with whom he had unprotected sex. Every one of them, including a woman who slept with him only once. Either his virus was shedding, multiplying like crazy, or his strain of the virus was especially contagious.”

But charging Ssenyonga presented a problem: there was not, nor is there now, any law in Canada to prevent one person from knowingly infecting another. After much consideration, prosecutors decided that Ssenyonga should be charged with

three counts of aggravated sexual assault— on which he was later acquitted—and three charges of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. By the time he went to trial in April, 1993, Ssenyonga had infected at least 10 women. Of them, five would testify against him.

The first time Ssenyonga took the stand,

Callwood delivers a chilling cautionary tale about the realities of AIDS

it was apparent to many spectators in the courtroom why people found him to be so compelling. “Projecting a magnetism that filled the room, he was eloquent, graceful and passionate,” writes Callwood, who sat in on the trial. “His blackness in a room peopled only with whites, as it had been almost every day of the trial, emphasized his exotic isolation.”

By the end of his fifth day of testimony, however, Ssenyonga did not appear quite so charming. At one point, Crown attorney

Bruce Long asked Ssenyonga if he ever thought about the feelings of two of the women whom he had infected. “ ‘Not really,’ Ssenyonga replied, ‘because I would be thinking of death.’ Tour death?’ “Yes.’ ”

On July 20, 1993, 13 days after lawyers from both sides had presented their closing arguments, Ssenyonga died, at 36, of AIDSrelated causes in hospital. His death not only frustrated police and the prosecution, who had hoped for a precedent-setting ruling on the case, but it also prevented his victims from bringing him to justice. “My life is destroyed,” said one of the women. “Ssenyonga has sentenced me to death, and he enjoyed himself when he did it.” Since then, two of the infected women have died and two others are extremely ill.

Callwood’s prose is straightforward, as if the author recognized that the tragedy inflicted on the young women needed no embellishment. Even the book’s most technical medical and legal passages become part of the narrative tension, as lawyers and public-health officials struggle to find a way to convict Ssenyonga.

Trial Without End is a chilling cautionary tale that drives home the reality that AIDS does not discriminate by race, color, gender or sexual proclivity. And it is a wake-up call to those who mistakenly consider themselves immune.

NORA UNDERWOOD