An HIV exposure trial that started Wednesday in Douglas County District Court involves two central questions: one personal and one scientific.
First, did a charming man who likened himself to movie star Orlando Bloom intend to expose women to HIV by having sex with them without telling them of his condition?
Second, given the low level of the virus in his body at the time much of the sex was happening, did he actually expose them?
Defense attorney Thomas Johnson argued in opening statements Monday that the medicine that his client, Robert W. Richardson II, was taking reduced the virus to an undetectable level. That meant it couldn't have been spread.
But the first witness, Richardson's personal doctor, Christopher Penn, testified there was a possibility the virus still could be spread through intercourse even at those low levels.
"I can't say that there was no potential for exposure, based on the numbers that I have," Penn said.
Richardson met the four victims in various ways: two online, one at work at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and one through Kansas University's Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics.
During an opening statement, a prosecutor characterized Richardson as someone who wanted to live a normal life - which meant having unprotected sex.
"The defendant was not normal, ladies and gentlemen," Assistant Dist. Atty. Trent Krug said. "The defendant was afflicted with HIV, and he kept those scarlet letters a secret" from the women.
Three of the victims testified they didn't know Richardson was HIV positive before having unprotected sex with him. A fourth testified she knew of his status but that he removed a condom during sex without her knowledge.
Defense attorney Johnson said in his opening statement that "this is not a sex case," but rather a case about Richardson's intentions and the scientific information about how HIV is passed.
Even if there was no condom, Johnson said, the women were protected by Richardson's use of a difficult remedial drug regimen.
He pointed out that in a November 2005 lab test, Richardson had such a small quantity of the virus in his blood - a "viral load" of less than 50 - that the amount of virus couldn't be pinpointed.
"At these levels ... science just doesn't know" whether the disease can even be transmitted, he said.
If Richardson had intended to expose the women, Johnson said, he would have stopped taking the drugs.
Penn, who has treated Richardson since 2003, testified about the fluctuating levels of the virus found in Richardson's body at different times.
The women all had sex with Richardson between August 2005 and January 2006. In February 2005, a test showed Richardson had a viral load of 11,700, and he was placed on a new drug regimen. In November 2005, his viral load had dropped to less than 50, though Penn said the virus was still detected.
This June, a test showed the viral load had gone back up to 2,025, and in August it was down to 826, Penn said.
The doctor said the low level indicated by Richardson's November 2005 test could not predict how much of the virus was in his body in later months.
The trial is expected to continue through the week.