For more than a year — since that day a judge sentenced her son to serve 10 years of a 50-year sentence following a life-altering car crash — she has been preparing, pushing and pleading for his homecoming.
For more than a year — since that phone call when she realized that her son didn’t fully grasp what he faced, because he asked whether she could send Thanksgiving dinner to his cellblock — she has been calling lawmakers, emailing supporters and posting pictures and prayers for tens of thousands of strangers to see on an Instagram page she titled “Free Matthew Rushin.”
“Oh Lord, how I miss him,” she wrote on there one day. “. . . He’s still the child I tucked in at nite and read stories too — He’s still the teenager that took care of me when I had the flu or going through chemo.”
“Why God?” she wrote another day. “He does not deserve this! The system we trusted failed him. Being black is not a crime! Being autistic is not a crime!”
Another post: “How did my beautiful son become a hashtag? I miss him. I miss him. I miss him with all my heart!”
Nearly two years ago, on Jan. 4, 2019, Matthew Rushin walked out of his family’s Virginia Beach home to pick up pastries at a nearby Panera and never made it back.
What happened instead has divided people in his hometown, brought together autism advocates and Black Lives Matter activists, and left Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) sifting through the wreckage of two families to determine whether Rushin deserved the prison sentence he was handed.
In June, when I first told you about Rushin, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s and ADHD as a child and later experienced a traumatic brain injury, his family was hopeful that Northam would offer him an absolute pardon and allow him to come home.
This month, Northam granted Rushin a conditional and partial pardon and reduced his sentence.
What he didn’t do — what he failed to do — was free Rushin.
Rushin’s tentative release date is now in the spring, leaving him in a limbo that has his family worried.
Worried about the way the novel coronavirus has torn through some prisons.
Worried that his impending freedom will make him a target to inmates who don’t have going-home dates.
Worried that a cyst on his pituitary gland, which has not been checked since the crash, is the reason he is experiencing episodes of temporary blindness.
“I have NOT . . . I repeat have NOT heard from Matthew Rushin today!” reads a recent post on the “Free Matthew Rushin” page. “Matthew has been complaining about his headaches becoming more frequent to the point he cannot open his eyes. He mental and physical health is deteriorating. . . . This is nerve wrecking!! Is he alive?? Did something happen to him overnight? He is vulnerable to attacks from other inmates when they know he has lost his vision.”
Rushin’s case is complicated and filled with devastating details. Two families were irreparably changed in the crash that landed him in police custody and ultimately led to him pleading guilty to two charges of malicious wounding. (He also pleaded guilty to a hit-and-run charge for an earlier collision that same night.)
“It is my opinion that Matthew Rushin took the responsible, adult path by pleading guilty,” says Danna Cusick. Her husband, George, was driving, and she was in the passenger seat when Rushin’s vehicle hit theirs head-on. Her husband now lives in a full-care facility, unable to talk or feed himself. “George has been destroyed. . . . A family has been destroyed.”
In a letter she sent Northam, which she shared with me, she asks him not to make Rushin’s sentence any shorter than he already has.
“Doing so would simply victimize us further,” it reads. “I sleep in an empty bed. I eat at an empty table. My days are spent worrying about George. Prior to the covid lockdown, I visited George twice a day in order to be sure that he was dressed and out of bed in a timely fashion as well as to help him with his meals. (It is difficult for me to say ‘to feed him.’) Distanced visiting has been allowed only five or six times since March 12. I want to hug my husband. I miss him. He is regressing due to all of this time without stimulation. We Skype twice a week, but it is difficult for him to focus on a small screen. I talk to him for the duration of the call with little to no reaction from him.”
Prosecutors have argued that Rushin was trying to commit suicide that night. They described him as getting into a collision in a parking lot, leaving the scene and driving recklessly before heading into oncoming traffic. An investigation found that he was going approximately 65 mph just before the crash and didn’t hit the brakes.
Rushin’s mother maintains that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone that night and was coerced into signing a plea agreement that was not in his interest.
She, along with advocates in the autism community, have offered detailed explanations on how his autism probably played a role in his actions that night, from his response after the parking-lot collision to his confusion about which pedal he stepped on. An interrogation video shows Rushin telling the police: “I was on my brakes. I can promise you that.”
“I wish I could take their pain away,” Lavern Rushin says of the Cusick family. “I would never want to be that mother sitting here, which I am now, knowing my son caused this. But was it intentional? By no means, no. I embrace them being angry at us. I really do. But I am not going to let Matthew be a statistic. I am not going to give up on my son.”
Thousands of people across the country have rallied behind Rushin. Some have notable names. Some have autism, or care about someone who does.
And some remain haunted by what happened to another young Black man with autism from Virginia whose life was altered by the justice system.
Reginald “Neli” Latson was 18 and sitting outside a library in his neighborhood in 2010 when someone called the sheriff’s office to report a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun.” Latson didn’t have a gun, and he hadn’t committed a crime, but he ended up hurting a deputy during a confrontation.
He then spent years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, before then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) gave him a conditional pardon.
On Jan. 16, 2019, McAuliffe commemorated that decision by tweeting: “4 years ago today I pardoned Neli Latson who never should have been sent to jail.”
At that moment, Rushin was sitting behind bars.
Lavern Rushin has asked state officials to let her son come home in time for the holidays — and they should.
Before the crash, Rushin wrote poetry, played the piano and took classes at Old Dominion University. He was a contributing member of society. Keeping him locked up, amid a pandemic, benefits no one. What happened to the Cusick family is heartbreaking. Releasing Rushin now doesn’t make it any less so.
The details of the conditional pardon reflect that, in contrast to the 50 years he was given, the sentencing guidelines for his convictions call for a range of two years and seven months to six years and four months. Northam adjusted his sentence to 10 years for each conviction, with seven years and five months suspended, to be served concurrently.
The conditional pardon also requires he remain under the supervision of a parole officer for five years and prohibits him from possessing a firearm or driving for the rest of his life.
On the day their son is released, Lavern Rushin and her husband plan to take him to a trauma center so doctors can determine whether the cyst is causing his bouts of blindness.
Then they will finally take him home to stay.
In an email that Matthew sent to me, through his mom, he recalls the moment he learned about the conditional pardon.
“I cried because I realized all the hard work of my mother had finally paid off,” he writes. “It is a day I will always remember.”
“When I get home, I am enjoying everything I took for granted,” he adds.
He then lists a few of those things: Sitting outside. Breathing in the morning air. Eating pretzels.
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