The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Neli Latson is — finally — free. It only took 11 years, two governors and a national conversation about race and disability.

Reginald “Neli” Latson, who was 18 when he was arrested, will turn 30 this year. (Courtesy of Latson’s family)
Comment

Reginald “Neli” Latson doesn’t know yet what he will do with his freedom.

The last time he got to choose where he wanted to go and how he spent his days, without having to ask permission from a law enforcement official, he was 18.

This year, he will turn 30.

“I’m still kind of scared, to be honest,” Latson tells me over the phone on a recent afternoon.

Growing up in Stafford County, Va., he enjoyed walking through his neighborhood by himself. Now, he doesn’t go anywhere alone. Not to the store. Not to the park. Not to a coffee house.

“I’ve been changed, you know,” he says. “I just try to stay out of trouble and things like that. I never want to get into trouble.”

On Monday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) granted a pardon to Latson that ends his time under state supervision. He is now free to choose where and how he lives, without having to get approval from a probation officer. He is now free to go about his days, without worrying that one misstep could send him back to prison.

Latson’s family and disability rights organizations have applauded Northam’s decision — and they are right to do so. Latson’s freedom was long overdue. That pardon did not come easily or quickly for the family. It took 11 years, two governors and a national conversation about the intersection of race and disabilities, and who is most at risk of facing injustices.

On the day of his arrest, Latson was not just a Black teenager. He was a Black, autistic teenager. And both parts of his identity matter when talking about his case.

His mother, Lisa Alexander, has long been trying to get people to see that. She was talking about “intersectionality,” without using that word, before that term became a Twitter hashtag.

She was talking about it before many people were ready to listen.

“I was screaming at the top of my voice,” Alexander recalls of those months, then years, following her son’s arrest. “I didn’t know what I was doing, or how to do it, but I did whatever I could to bring attention to his case.”

The first time I spoke to Alexander was in 2010, shortly after her son’s arrest. I was a reporter on the local enterprise team and she called to tell me about him. I don’t recall what she said, but I remember clearly how she said it: Through tears. She was desperate to have her son’s story told. She wanted people to know that he was behind bars because he stood where two of society’s fault lines met.

After I visited her at home, I wrote an article that ran under the headline, “Stafford County woman confronts issues of race, autism after son’s arrest.”

At the time, Alexander had created a website and Facebook page, titled “A Voice for Neli.” It was a recognition that she would have to speak for him — until he could speak for himself.

She just didn’t realize how long that would take.

No one did. Not the lawyers who fought for his release. Not the advocates who called for his freedom. Not Latson, who sat in prison.

On the day of his arrest, Latson woke up and walked to his local library. As he waited outside for it to open, someone called the sheriff’s department and described him as a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun.”

Authorities would later say the caller hadn’t actually seen a gun, but by the time that was sorted out, Latson was under arrest, charged with assaulting a deputy who had responded to the call.

The family never denied that the deputy got hurt, but they contended that Latson was trying to walk away when the deputy grabbed him. They argued that Latson, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in eighth grade, responded with a fight-or-flight response, which is common for autistic individuals in that type of situation.

In prison, Latson spent long stretches in solitary confinement, including his first nine months, his mother says. A civil rights lawsuit filed in his name also details a mental health crisis that led to a physical encounter with a corrections officer and ended with Latson being Tasered and strapped in a restraint chair for more than nine hours.

In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) granted Latson a conditional pardon, allowing him to leave prison and live in a group home in Florida. But he still had to report to a probation officer and ask permission to even travel with his family.

Remember Neli Latson, the black teen with autism who seemed ‘suspicious’ sitting outside a library? Ten years after his arrest, he still isn’t fully free.

The conditional pardon granted by Northam ends his probation early, but does not clear his criminal record.

Still, Latson and disability rights advocates express relief that he is now a free man.

“We are grateful to Governor Northam and the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office for seeing the importance of this step in Neli’s quest for justice,” Tonya Milling, the executive director of the Arc of Virginia says. “We also thank Governor McAuliffe for continuing to follow Neli and for speaking out publicly urging this move.”

She credits Alexander’s outspoken advocacy as “paving the road” for recent legislation that aims to protect Virginians with disabilities who encounter the criminal justice system. One law will allow defendants to present evidence of an intellectual disability or mental illness.

Scholars also point to Latson’s case as helping change the national conversation about disabilities and race in the country.

It used to be that when people spoke about an injustice there were those who would say race played a role and others who would say disability played a role, but very few talked about how the two collided, says Jasmine Harris, a professor who will soon publish a piece in the Yale Law Journal titled “Reckoning with Race and Disability.” In it, she discusses Latson’s case.

“Neli’s story is such the perfect case study of how race and disability work together, as two components, as two pieces of the puzzle,” she says. She describes his case as “such a terrible parade of horribles that the public can’t turn away,” but also just one of many in which the intersection of race and disability contributed to an injustice.

On the day I talk to Latson, his mother sits near him. The two live together in Florida, where Latson receives support through a Medicaid waiver.

Alexander says he is still healing from the trauma he experienced and that it’s going to take him time to process what the pardon means for his life. She says the two eventually hope to write a book together to help others in similar situations and to try to enact change in other states.

Latson recognizes the importance of having his story heard and how hard his mother has worked to make that happen.

“If it weren’t for my mother, who would have listened to me?” he says. “Who is going to listen to me when she’s not here?”

“We’re going to get your voice out there,” she assures him. “I was your voice, but now you can be your own voice.”

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

She’s endured stares and insults. Her dream: To create a community space where others won’t have to.

A young black autistic man was sentenced to 50 years for a car crash. Tens of thousands of people are now calling for his freedom.

Cicada season started with a police encounter and ended with a love song for this entomologist

Loading...