SAN ANTONIO -- Bill Day doesn't fancy himself an outlaw -- and with his Mr. Rogers demeanor, he definitely doesn't look the part. But soon the 73-year-old lay chaplain could spend up to a year in jail for breaking a law that he considers immoral.
Day hands out clean needles to drug addicts on some of the seediest streets in this south Texas city. He does it because he's convinced that it reduces human suffering by curtailing the spread of HIV, a view that has been supported by medical research for more than a decade.
However, Day's actions are illegal in Texas -- the only state that has not started a needle-exchange program of some kind. So when a San Antonio police officer spotted him swapping syringes with prostitutes and junkies this month, he was arrested on drug paraphernalia charges.
"This is a moral imperative," said Day, whose nonprofit group, the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition, gets funding from his church. "I come from a family of altruistic people. My mother made clothes for the poor during the Depression. My father never turned down a hobo. I have to keep doing what I think is right."
Day also has a personal reason for wanting to stop others from contracting AIDS: He has the disease. Sick and weary a decade ago, he called an ambulance, thinking he was suffering from pneumonia. At the hospital, he was informed that he had full-blown AIDS -- and about two weeks to live. He fiercely fought on and overcame the odds, but not before his once-athletic frame had shrunk to 120 pounds.
"I don't want anyone else to go through that," Day said as he stood on San Antonio's west side next to a vacant lot strewn with used needles. He said his AIDS, which he did not contract through drug use, has been stabilized for six years.
I'm encouraged that there are people out there like Day putting themselves on the line to help people and to combat this kind of nonsense thinking that the righteous politicos of Texas seem to keep generating inside their thick skulls.
Neel Lane, a high-powered San Antonio lawyer who agreed to defend Day for free after learning about his case through their church, St. Mark's Episcopal, said it was time for the Lone Star State to admit it was behind the times.
"When you're the only state that doesn't have [a needle-exchange program], you're either the 2% smartest or 2% dumbest in the country," Lane said.
You've got that right.