When a Stafford County jury this month found an autistic teenager guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer and recommended that he spend 101 / 2 years in prison, a woman in the second row sobbed.
It wasn’t the defendant’s mother. She wouldn’t cry until she reached her car. It was Teresa Champion.
Champion had sat through the trial for days and couldn’t help drawing parallels between the defendant, Reginald “Neli” Latson, 19, and her son James, a 17-year-old with autism.
James might have said this, she thought. James might have done that. She had fresh bruises on her body that showed that James, too, had lost his temper to the point of violence.
“This is what we live with,” said Champion, of Springfield. “When they go over the edge, there is no pulling back. ”
The cause of autism — a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others — remains the subject of heated debate. What’s not in dispute is the soaring number of children found to have the disorder. In 1985, autism had been diagnosed in one out of 2,500 people in the United States; now the rate is one in 110.
Champion said parents are just beginning to acknowledge what she calls the “dark side of autism,” their children’s capacity for aggression when they are frustrated, angry or overstimulated. Her son recently hit his attendant and attacked his father in front of a movie theater. Other parents describe scary episodes of biting, kicking and hitting.
It’s not easy to talk about children lashing out, Champion said. But it’s necessary because many are getting older and bigger and yearn for more independence, which leads to private struggles becoming public.
During Latson’s three-day trial, no one disputed that he assaulted a Stafford deputy one morning in May. The deputy was bleeding so profusely that responding officers thought he had been shot.
But why Latson — who has Asperger’s syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism — did it and whether he could have stopped himself played a central role in his defense and has engaged the sympathy of parents in the Washington region and beyond.
“Everyone is like, ‘Oh my God, that is my son,’ ” said Ann Gibbons of the advocacy group Autism Speaks. She said the case calls attention to two crucial issues: “How do we protect the community, and how do we protect the impaired individual?”
“And in this case, we didn’t protect either,” she said.
Instead, a law enforcement officer with 33 years of experience ended his career early, and a teenager, who had committed no crime in the moments before he encountered the deputy, has spent about 10 months in custody.
Stafford prosecutor Eric Olsen maintains that Latson didn’t assault the deputy because of his Asperger’s but because of “his violent tendencies.” But advocates for people with autism fear that Latson’s case represents a scenario that will become increasingly common in years to come.
“It’s not like the population is going down,” said Scott Campbell, who has done more than 120 presentations for local agencies, including police departments, on how to deal with autistic children. “It’s going up.”
On the morning of the confrontation, Latson’s mother said, he slipped out of the house early to go to the library. But it was closed, so he sat on the grass.
What followed was a call to police about a suspicious black male, outside the library, wearing a hoodie and possibly carrying a gun. The call came, authorities said, after some children at the elementary school across the street became frightened and told a crossing guard.
The school was put on lockdown, a search ensued and deputy Thomas Calverley, 56, a school resource officer, spotted Latson walking out of a nearby wooded area.
“Hey, what’s up, man?” Calverley said, according to his testimony.
The deputy approached. He squeezed the front pocket area of Latson’s sweat shirt and lifted it to check for a gun. There was none. According to authorities, no gun was found, and the children, when questioned later, said they never saw one.
Calverley said he asked the teenager his name several times and, after the teen refused to give it, he grabbed Latson, told him that he was under arrest and bent him over the hood of a car. That’s when the two started wrestling and fell to the ground.
At one point during the struggle, Calverley said, Latson flipped him hard onto his back, causing his head to hit the pavement. The teenager then hit him dozens of times and, at one point, took his pepper spray from him.
When it was over, Calverley had a one-inch cut on his head, numerous abrasions and a shattered ankle that required two plates and a dozen screws to repair.
Latson’s attorneys didn’t dispute what had happened. Instead, they presented an insanity defense in court. They said Latson — in whom intermittent explosive disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder had also been diagnosed — could not control his behavior because of an “irresistible impulse.”
The issue resonates not only with parents but with police. Every year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police picks one major issue to address at a national summit. In 2010, it was improving police response to people with mental illness and such conditions as autism.
“It has been a huge and significant part of our conversation in the last couple of years,” said John Firman, director of research for the organization.
Firman, who participates in the Big Brother program, has a “little brother” with Asperger’s. He said that when he goes out with the youngster, he sometimes wonders, “If anything would happen here, how would police deal with him?”
Among the summit’s recommendations, Firman said, were that all officers be trained in how to deal with such people and that police work closely with families and community organizations.
Latson’s case, however, was not a matter of a law enforcement officer being untrained, the prosecutor said. “This deputy has a 33-year-old mentally retarded child,” Olsen said. “So the deputy is very sensitive to dealing with children with disabilities. He’s lived it every day for the last 33 years.”
On March 4, the jury found Latson guilty of four charges, including assault of a law enforcement officer and wounding in the commission of a felony. On May 19, he is scheduled to appear before Stafford County Circuit Court Judge Charles Sharp, who can accept or reduce the jury’s recommended sentence.
Last week, prosecutors tried Latson on a breaking-and-entering charge related to an incident in 2009. In that case, prosecutors said, Latson rang the doorbell at a teenager’s home. When the teen opened the door, Latson hit him and followed him inside. Latson pleaded guilty to assault last year. On Thursday, he was found guilty of breaking and entering.
“I’m not here to try to paint a pretty story about my son,” but he is not the violent individual that Stafford authorities have depicted, said Latson’s mother, Lisa Alexander. “Neli is not a danger to society. He doesn’t belong in jail. He belongs at home.”
Holly Robinson Peete, a co-host of CBS’s “The Talk” and mother of a 13-year-old boy with autism, said she has had nightmares about a boy sitting on a lawn with a hooded sweat shirt. “In my dream, the boy’s face is my son’s,” said Peete, who, with her son’s twin sister, has written a children’s book, “My Brother Charlie,” about a boy with autism. “I’m telling you: It haunts me.”
And it haunts other parents, too.
Ann Worley of Springfield has a scar on her cheek where her son David bit her. When he was younger, David would take out his frustrations on himself, she said, but now he is 18, 6-foot-2 and 360 pounds, and he lashes outward.
“There was a time last September, I actually locked myself in the bathroom,” Worley said. “I was scared. I thought I was going to have to call the police.”
If she had, she said, she wonders what the officers would have done.
Worley followed Latson’s case through Facebook and started prayer chains for him that stretched to Chicago and Michigan. When she read about the verdict, she said, she felt “sick.”
“My David,” she said, “could have done the same thing.”
Juan Navarro of Waldorf has long been aware of the dangers of having children who are growing older and larger and craving independence they may not be ready for. After moving moved to Charles County five years ago, he took photos of his autistic sons, Omar, now 17, and Sebastian, now 25, to the police station so officers would know their faces.
But on a recent night, Navarro hesitated to call 911 when Sebastian, who has Asperger’s, took off down the road. The Latson case was fresh in Navarro’s mind. Yet there was his son, a young man, 5-foot-9, who recently couldn’t stop talking about Harry Potter, running down a busy street in the dark.