The caller reduced him to a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun.” The sheriff’s office would later determine the caller hadn’t actually seen a gun, but by then it was too late. The news release that would contain those details would also include a mug shot of the teenager and an account of how he assaulted a deputy who responded to the call.
What followed were years spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and a conditional pardon from then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that has left Latson in a space that is somewhere between uncaged and not yet free.
“Neli will never be the same,” Latson’s mom, Lisa Alexander, tells me on a recent afternoon. “His life was snuffed out. Although he is still alive, it was taken away from him.”
Ten years have passed since that day at the library, and the now-28-year-old no longer takes long walks by himself.
He doesn’t take any walks by himself.
He is too afraid to do so. His mother is too afraid to let him. And both know he can’t do much on his own without getting permission from his probation officer or the group home where he has been ordered to live.
“Every aspect of his life is supervised,” Alexander says. “He’s not able to live in society. He’s not able to get a job and have a girlfriend. He hasn’t had an opportunity to learn how to drive, to get a license. . . . These are rites of passage, natural progressions you get to experience as a human being. All of those things were stripped away from him.”
The protests that have grown from the police custody death of George Floyd have rightfully left people calling out the country’s judicial system for proving over and over, and over and over, again that black lives don’t matter. Much of the fury and passion and doneness has been directed at the police, with protesters calling on cities to overhaul, and even abolish, their forces.
But Latson’s case shows that the system’s brokenness doesn’t end with those ranks. His case shows that while some losses occur in minutes under a uniformed knee, others take place over years in front of many types of badges and titles.
When Alexander learned of Floyd’s death, she had just returned from a trip with her son. She says she sat down and cried.
“I cried for Floyd, but I also cried for Neli,” she says. “That was so close to being Neli. And although he didn’t die, some of his potential died that day.”
I first met Alexander in 2010, shortly after her son, whose full name is Reginald Cornelius Latson, was arrested. I sat in her Stafford County home as she talked about the boy who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in eighth grade and the online campaign she launched to bring attention to his case.
“I have to do what I have to do to save my son’s life,” she told me at the time. “I’m so afraid he’s going to be damaged beyond repair.”
A look at documents from a civil rights lawsuit filed in Latson’s name — the details of which haven’t been publicly scrutinized — show that his mother’s fears were not unfounded.
The family does not deny that a Stafford County deputy got hurt May 24, 2010. But the lawsuit describes Latson, who had committed no crime, trying to walk away, the deputy grabbing him several times and the teenager responding “with a fight-or-flight response, which is a common response for individuals with [autism spectrum disorder] who are faced with these types of situations.”
That day, the documents says, “began a cycle of crisis, escalation, and punishment from which he has only recently escaped.”
The documents describe him as being held in solitary confinement for long periods, including one stretch of more than 100 days. During much of his time in solitary, he spent at least 23 hours a day in a cell, with little to no stimulation. No radio. No television. No books. The documents also detail a physical encounter with a corrections officer that happened during a mental-health crisis for Latson and ended with him being Tasered, then strapped to a restraint chair designed to hold people’s legs, arms, waist and chest in place.
“The officers left him in the Pro-Straint chair, unable to move, eat, or use the restroom, for more than nine hours,” reads one document. “When he was released from the Pro-Straint chair, he received a snack bag and milk but was given no dinner.”
That document also addresses how he would leave the prison system less prepared for life than when he entered it: “Latson avers that he once showed promise of leading a relatively independent life in the least restrictive placement and maintaining employment, but it is now unlikely that he will achieve that level of independence in the foreseeable future. He relies on others to manage his heightened fear and reactivity in challenging interpersonal situations, and he is hypervigilant to signs of danger.”
Attorneys for the family say that the civil rights case resulted in the Rappahannock Regional Jail, where Latson was Tasered, paying him a settlement and agreeing to make some reforms, including limiting the use of isolation for inmates with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses. But the claims against the Virginia Department of Corrections were dismissed on the basis of “qualified immunity,” which has protected countless government entities and employees from facing the consequences of their actions.
About five years ago, Latson received a pardon from McAuliffe for the criminal charges brought against him. In January 2019, McAuliffe commemorated the moment in a tweet: “4 years ago today I pardoned Neli Latson who never should have been sent to jail. He needed medical care for his autism. Received report today that he is living in a community home in Florida and doing fine and no problems. Congrats Neli.”
McAuliffe’s move, which came after columns from The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, was an important step. But it was just that — a step. It was one right move that followed a whole lot of wrong ones. Much more needs to be done to prevent the next black teenager who seems “suspicious” to a stranger from losing years of his life, or more.
In an email Latson sent me, he says he feels sorry for Floyd’s family.
“I hope there will finally be change and there will be equality for black people,” he writes. “I understand how fortunate I am to be alive.”
Alexander says she has been watching the protests and hopes to see real results come from this moment. She wants to see consequences put in place for individuals who call the police on black people who are just living their lives. She wants to see efforts made to change not only policing practices but also other aspects of the criminal-justice system.
She wants to see her son released from a conditional pardon that requires he remain under supervision for four more years.
When Latson was in prison, he called his mother often. What she remembers most from those conversations is a song he would sing her. She says that song suddenly feels “so key to what is happening right now.”
She didn’t know he knew the lyrics until they flowed out of him.
“I was born by a river, in a little tent,” Alexander starts to sing, remembering those calls, when her voice breaks. The next line comes out in tearful gulps. “It’s been a long, a long time comin’, but I know, a change is gonna come.”
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