What had just happened was a judge decided that the young black autistic man wasn’t only going to miss one holiday with his family. He was going to miss a decade of them.
The judge ordered Rushin to serve 10 years of a 50-year sentence.
Before that moment, Lavern Rushin and her husband, Demetrius, had watched Matthew — who was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s as a child and later experienced a traumatic brain injury — make his way through schools in Virginia Beach and into Old Dominion University. They had seen him compose poetry, play the piano and, unlike many people his age, fill his Facebook page with unabashed admissions of admiration and love.
He once wrote of his mom, “i aspire to care about the world like you do. i aspire to love as much as you do. i aspire to have the mind-set that you do, to care for those that … that aren’t prepared for what’s to come.”
Then on a rainy night, he went to pick up pastries at the Panera where he worked, and he didn’t make it home.
That night, he was involved in a life-shattering crash, arrested and held in jail until he was sentenced on Nov. 6, 2019.
On that day, the commonwealth’s attorney for Virginia Beach announced in a news release that the 21-year-old had pleaded guilty in August 2019 to two charges of malicious wounding and one charge of hit-and-run.
“Had this case gone to trial, the commonwealth’s evidence would have proven that on January 4, 2019, Matthew Rushin struck another moving vehicle in a parking lot . . . did not stop, and instead fled the parking lot,” read a news release at the time. “Just moments later, Rushin was driving recklessly on First Colonial Road, passing traffic and speeding. When he reached a median break, he drove straight into oncoming traffic and [struck] another vehicle head-on. It was occupied by a husband and wife who were visiting Virginia Beach from New York.”
At the scene, it continues, “Rushin climbed out of his vehicle and stated that he was trying to kill himself. Investigation revealed that he was driving approximately 65 m.p.h. right before the crash and did not apply his brakes.”
That news release, which does not mention Rushin is autistic, might have been the final word in his case.
But then George Floyd was killed in police custody, protests sparked conversations about racial inequities in a justice system that too often doesn’t live up to its name, and people across the country started looking closer at Rushin’s case.
What they saw in its details was not what prosecutors had described. They saw a young man who had not intended to hurt anyone, including himself, and had been persuaded to sign a plea agreement that was not in his best interest.
They saw a life that was too easily discarded by a system that has failed other black autistic men.
A few weeks ago, I told you about Neli Latson, who was sitting outside his neighborhood library when someone thought the black autistic teenager looked “suspicious” and called the sheriff’s office. Latson assaulted a deputy who grabbed him and then spent years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, where he was shocked with a Taser and strapped to a chair for more than nine hours.
Latson eventually received a conditional pardon from then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), but as I discovered when I spoke to his family, he still is not free. He remains in a group home and under a probation officer’s supervision.
Since that column ran, the Arc, a national advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has called on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to give Latson a full pardon. In a news release, the organization describes it as a “long overdue legal and moral justice for a young Black man with disabilities who has suffered irreparable harm.”
It’s an important development in Latson’s case. It also comes 10 years after he sat in front of that library.
The people who are calling for justice in Matthew Rushin’s case are pushing for him to receive his freedom now.
They are calling for a recognition that “Black Autistic Lives Matter” right now.
“As a Black parent to a 7-year-old Black autistic son, my sole job is preserve his present so that he can make it into the future,” Jennifer White Johnson, a Baltimore resident and professor at Bowie State University, wrote about the case. “If our nation continues to show that our young Black autistic men don’t have value, what is that saying to our current generation of Black autistic youth?”
“I see myself in Matthew,” wrote Emmanuel Abua, who also is black and autistic. “Based on my mannerisms and my responses, things could go bad in a hurry just like they did for him. I do fear that what happened to Matthew will happen to me — or worse.”
It is important to acknowledge that a person was seriously hurt in the head-on crash. A 72-year-old man was injured so severely, according to media reports, that he was left unable to talk and feed himself.
But punishment in our criminal justice system is supposed to be based on intention — and Rushin’s growing number of supporters don’t believe his case reflects that. More than 85,000 people across the country have signed a Change.org petition titled “Free Matthew Rushin.” Autism experts have joined his family in calling on Northam to grant him an absolute pardon. And what Rushin didn’t get in court, he’s now getting in public: an in-depth examination of what happened the night of the crash.
“I’ve spent over 140 hours of the last week [poring] over the details of this case, reaching out to relevant people, conducting interviews, scouring Matthew’s online fingerprints, and requesting additional information,” Terra Vance, an autistic woman and psychology consultant, writes for NeuroClastic, the website she founded.
On the site, she has written extensively about the case, posted video from Rushin’s interrogation by police and, on Tuesday night, published a letter from a forensic engineer and traffic collision reconstructionist who examined the evidence and found that it does “not support the theory of suicidal behavior or attempted homicide.”
“On the contrary, the evidence presented strongly suggests pedal misapplication as the primary collision factor,” reads the letter, which has been sent to the governor’s office. “Pedal misapplication is a common cause of crash collisions among those age 16-20 and those with poor executive function, as is common in autism and ADHD.”
The letter says the evidence indicates the collision “was an accident.”
“Matthew made a mistake,” Vance writes. “Would we criminally penalize a driver who fainted? Who had a seizure but didn’t know they had a seizure disorder? Who had an allergic reaction? Is it a crime, a moral failing, something worth removing from someone their freedom, to make a mistake as a direct result of having a disability? Or is it that being Black and disabled makes a mistake a criminal offense?”
Rushin’s parents, who work for the Defense Department, have insisted that he wasn’t suicidal. They say he panicked after clipping a car in the parking lot, drove off and was making a U-turn to return to the scene when the crash occurred. His mother says that he mentioned wanting to die after a man involved in the collision started yelling at him and asking if he was trying to kill himself. She says he was appeasing, not confessing.
The interrogation video shows him telling the police that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He also insists that he tried to stop.
“I was on my brakes,” he says. “I can promise you that.”
Against his parents’ advice, he signed the plea agreement, his mom says, because he mistakenly thought it would allow him to come home.
While in prison, she says, he hasn’t received a mental-health evaluation or medical attention for the headaches, dizziness and transient blindness he has experienced since the crash.
“He does not belong in there,” she says. “They ripped our son away from us. He’s loving. He’s compassionate.”
He’s a young man who wrote a poem on his Facebook page about a “curly headed boy.”
“i travelled the depths of my heart and soul and found nothing but gold and diamond,” it begins. “i found some impurities but none were unfixable or unmendable. i found the core of myself and saw someone trying.”
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