A Stafford County judge suspended all but two years of Reginald “Neli” Latson’s sentence Tuesday in a case that gained national attention and tapped into the fears of the autism community.
Latson, 19, faced 10 1/2 years in prison after a jury in March found him guilty of four charges, including assaulting a law enforcement officer. In court, no one disputed that he fought with the officer. But whether Latson — who has Asperger’s syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism — could have stopped himself played a central role in his defense and garnered support from many who believed that but for one misread moment a Stafford County deputy wouldn’t have been injured and Latson wouldn’t have spent the last year in jail.
“Here is a young man who we did not do well by, and as a result he has lost, his mom has lost and so did the police officer,” said Nancy Mercer, executive director of the Arc of Northern Virginia, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Latson’s case, she said, was about “a person and a bigger issue.”
Mercer was one of many Latson supporters who filled the courtroom Tuesday. Also there were people who knew him from before the incident — his family, a high school wrestling coach and a former employer — and those who heard about him afterwards: parents of autistic children, local and national advocates, and adults with autism.
About 50 people wrote letters beforehand to Circuit Court Judge Charles Sharp, who had the option of accepting or reducing the jury’s recommended sentence. In the end, Sharp sentenced Latson to two years in jail, with credit for the one served, followed by a plan his attorneys presented.
As an alternative to jail, Latson’s attorneys argued he should go to a Virginia hospital, followed by a residential treatment program. Both programs had agreed to accept him.
Mercer called the verdict “hopeful,” a sign that the judge and community were listening. Latson’s mother, Lisa Alexander, who says she has been incredibly moved by the support her family received, described the verdict as “unjust.”
“He doesn’t deserve to be in jail another year when a very concrete alternative was provided to the judge,” she said. Already, she said, she has seen her son’s mental state worsen and his thoughts turn to suicide. “What will another year do to him?”
On the morning of the incident, Latson, who received an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis in the eighth grade, slipped out of the house early to go to the library but found it closed. What followed was a call to police about a suspicious black male seen outside the library, wearing a hoodie and possibly carrying a gun.
Deputy Thomas Calverley, 56, spotted Latson, searched him for a gun, found none and repeatedly asked him his name. When Latson refused to give it, Calverley grabbed him in an attempt to put him under arrest. A scuffle ensued, leaving Calverley with injuries that forced him to retire early.
In court Tuesday, Latson turned to Calverley and, in a barely audible voice, apologized.