WOODBRIDGE - Lisa Alexander, holds a picture of her son, Reginald "Neli" Latson, a convicted, autistic teenager that she says needs legal help with her son's case in Woodbridge, VA on March 11, 2011. A police officer in Stafford, VA stopped her son for questioning and scuffle ensued. He's now spent a year in jail for assaulting a police officer and could spend another nine years if a jury's recommendation is granted. This has parents of autistic children worried about authorities who cannot identify special-needs individuals from the rest of society. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Columnist

Two obstacles stand in the way of getting Reginald Latson, autistic and with an IQ of 69, out of the solitary confinement in which he’s been held for most of the past year and into the treatment facility that he needs.

The first is Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who says he is an involuntary obstacle, sympathetic to Latson’s plight but with hands tied, at least for now, because of a pending assault charge against Latson.

That charge is being brought by the second, deliberate obstacle to transferring Latson from prison to treatment: Stafford County prosecutor Eric Olsen, Virginia’s answer to Inspector Javert. Latson’s intellectual disability, Olsen has argued in court, is “an aspect of convenience. When his advocates want him to be retarded, he is.”

Olsen grudgingly acknowledges that Latson has been diagnosed with autism but contends that the 23-year-old’s problems in the criminal justice system do not arise from his disability. “He is a person with autism that also has this hate, this racial hate and this hate for law enforcement,” Olsen said.

Latson’s four-year odyssey began as he sat on the grass outside the local library, waiting for it to open. He was a young black man, wearing a hoodie, and the ensuing call to police suggested — without evidence — that he had a gun.

This event launched a seemingly never-ending cycle of toxic interactions between Latson, known as Neli, and law enforcement. Read through Latson’s court file, and you glean the story of a sweet, eager-to-please young man who nonetheless has moments — disturbing moments — of anger and violence.

“Neli’s judgment, problem-solving skills, adaptive behavior, and interests are those of a young child,” neuropsychologist Lauren Kenworthy wrote in 2011, after Latson had assaulted and severely injured the police officer. “In autism, extreme fight/flight reactions are not uncommon. It appears that in this instance, Neli’s first response was to attempt to flee. He was aggressive only after his attempt to leave the presence of the law enforcement officer failed and the officer physically restrained his movement.”

To get a sense of Olsen’s vindictive perspective, he considered the jury’s recommended sentence of 10 1/2 years “appropriate.” The judge disagreed. He reduced the sentence to a few additional months beyond the time Latson had already served — much of it in solitary confinement because he is too impaired to be in the general prison population — and then sent Latson to a residential treatment program. He did so well that he was transferred to a group home, which is where trouble resumed.

When Latson became agitated after a visit with his mother, staff unfamiliar with his routines called police. Latson asked the officer to shoot him and tried to grab his gun. Instead of treating this like the mental health crisis it was, Frederick County, where the episode took place, filed felony charges. Olsen seized on the episode as a probation violation and moved to revoke Latson’s probation.

Transferred back to the Stafford County jail against the judge’s recommendation, Latson had another run-in with authorities. Taken off his anti-psychotic medications and suicidal, he hit an officer as he was being moved from solitary into a “crisis cell” with no bed and a hole in the floor for a toilet.

For Olsen, this was not a mental health crisis or a matter for internal jail discipline — it was an opportunity for yet another criminal charge, set for trial in January. Meanwhile, Latson is being held in a cell, alone, with no television or radio.

Which is where McAuliffe comes in. Latson’s lawyers want him to be transferred to a locked treatment facility in Florida, a placement that Virginia mental health officials have recommended and for which they have secured federal funding.

But the governor’s office, while acknowledging “this . . . difficult situation” and “troubling matter,” says he has no power to act with the assault charge pending. Under the state Constitution, the governor’s pardon power arises only “after conviction.”

Action doesn’t need to wait until January. The best outcome would be for Olsen to drop the charge. Latson would then be transferred — on probation — as ordered by the judge to the secured treatment program in Florida. Second best would be a quick guilty plea — if Latson’s lawyers were confident it would result in treatment, and not continued, counterproductive incarceration. This would ensure public safety and be in keeping with the state’s moral and legal responsibilities to all its citizens, including the most vulnerable.

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