WOODBRIDGE – Lisa Alexander, holds a picture of her son, Reginald “Neli” Latson, a convicted, autistic teenager that she says needs legal help with her son’s case in Woodbridge, VA on March 11, 2011. (Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post)

Neli Latson pleaded guilty Thursday to assaulting a correctional officer in exchange for a six-month sentence. Now it’s up to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to make certain that he doesn’t have to serve it.

Latson, whose given name is Reginald, has autism and an IQ of 69. The 23-year-old has been caught up in Virginia’s criminal justice system for the better part of four years, after he assaulted, and severely injured, a police officer who questioned what Latson was doing loitering outside the public library. (He later said he was waiting for it to open.)
That encounter led to a cycle of prosecutions — of which Thursday’s guilty plea was the latest — as Latson was shuffled through a system ill-equipped to deal with his autism. Much of that time has been spent in solitary confinement.

No one is arguing for Latson’s release into the community. Rather, Latson’s lawyers — joined, significantly and ironically, by state mental health officials — have been trying to have him sent to a locked treatment facility in Florida. There, Latson would receive necessary treatment to allow him eventually to return to the community, rather than being held in conditions almost certain to worsen his behaviors, not improve them.

Thursday’s guilty plea involved an episode during which Latson, taken off his medications and judged suicidal, was being transferred from a regular solitary confinement call to an even more spartan cell with no mattress and a hole in the floor for a toilet. During the transfer, Latson was initially cooperative but ultimately punched a guard in the head several times as the guard, in the telling of Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen, helped to “assist” Latson in putting his hands on the wall. (Autism experts have testified that, like many with autism, he dislikes being touched and suffers from a “fight or flight” reaction when restrained.)

This infraction should have been dealt with in the prison process, not with yet another criminal prosecution; indeed, the judge seemed surprised when informed that the plea deal called for six additional months, rather than time already served.

Nonetheless, the guilty plea clears the way for McAuliffe to demonstrate some needed judgment — and mercy — by granting a pardon conditional on Latson’s transfer to the Florida facility. (Latson will be transferred there in six months in any event, under a separate part of the plea deal.) McAuliffe has said his hands were tied while the charges were pending. Now, he’s free to act, and he should — sooner rather than later.

“It’s been a long, hard road,” Judge Charles Sharp said in accepting Latson’s plea. “It wouldn’t be unfair to characterize this whole undertaking as a nightmare,” Sharp added—referring not just to Latson but to the police officer he assaulted in the library incident.

As it happens, that officer, Thomas Calverley, who retired on disability after his ankle was shattered in the original incident, was in Sharp’s courtroom Thursday. Calverley has his doubts about Latson’s diagnosis. “I don’t completely by the autism stuff,” he told me after the sentencing. “He turns some of the stuff on and off at will.”

Still, Calverley said, the outcome is probably right. “If you throw him in jail for five years and he comes out, he’s going to be the same,” Calverley said. “So this might be the right thing to do.”