Race Continues to Free Black Autistic Man Wrongfully Convicted

Matthew Rushin, a young, Black, autistic man who was wrongfully convicted after a 2019 car accident
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Photos: Twitter

Matthew Rushin, a young, Black, autistic man who was wrongfully convicted after a 2019 car accident, was conditionally pardoned by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in November 2020.

As of January 2021, Matthew is still sitting behind bars, awaiting release. He has recently contracted COVID-19 while in prison.

Lavern and Demetrius Rushin have worked tirelessly to free their son, who was 21 at the time of his arrest. Matthew, who was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s as a child and later suffered a traumatic brain injury, was a student at Old Dominion University — a young man who loved to compose poetry and play the piano. On the rainy night of January 4, 2019, he went to pick up pastries at the Panera where he worked when he was involved in a serious car accident.

After the accident, the commonwealth’s attorney for Virginia Beach issued a news release that read, in part: “Had this case gone to trial, the commonwealth’s evidence would have proven that on January 4, 2019, Matthew Rushin struck another moving vehicle in a parking lot . . . did not stop, and instead fled the parking lot. Just moments later, Rushin was driving recklessly on First Colonial Road, passing traffic and speeding. When he reached a median break, he drove straight into oncoming traffic and [struck] another vehicle head-on. It was occupied by a husband and wife who were visiting Virginia Beach from New York.”

“Rushin climbed out of his vehicle and stated that he was trying to kill himself,” the release continued. “Investigation revealed that he was driving approximately 65 m.p.h. right before the crash and did not apply his brakes.”

Matthew’s parents — as well as experts and criminal justice advocates who have stepped up to support him — disagree with this version of events. They say Matthew clipped a car in the parking lot and initially panicked and drove off. He was in the process of making a U-turn to return to the scene when the crash occurred.

Terra Vance, an autistic woman and psychology consultant, has examined the details of the case. She points to pedal misapplication as the cause of the crash and not suicidal behavior or attempted homicide. “Pedal misapplication is a common cause of crash collisions among those age 16-20 and those with poor executive function, as is common in autism and ADHD,” she writes.

According to Lavern, Matthew mentioned wanting to die after a man involved in the crash began yelling at the him, asking if he was trying to kill himself. His mother says that rather than a confession, Matthew’s comment was an attempt to appease the angry man.

Against his parent’s wishes, Matthew’s legal counsel coerced him into a plea agreement that was not in his best interest. He believed signing it would allow him to come home. He was instead ordered to serve 10 years of a 50-year sentence.

As discussed in this article, the sensory overload and mental health obstacles posed by time in prison is “sheer torture” for autistic people. Every day spent behind bars during a pandemic simply heightens the danger. This is why Matthew’s family, friends, and supporters are calling for his immediate release.

Sign the petition in support of Matthew Rushin

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