Autistic Black Man Sentenced To 50 Years In Prison For Non-Fatal Accident: Parents Outraged, Asking Va. Gov. To Pardon Him

Matthew Rushin


As long as Matthew is behind bars, we are behind bars.  There is not a moment during the day that I don’t think about Matthew.. I live, eat, sleep thinking and worrying about Matthew Rushin.  …When I’m eating, I think, “what is Matthew eating.”  When I lay on my comfortable bed, I wonder what Matthew is sleeping on.  I worry about what medication they are giving him or will give him.  I don’t want him to be tranquilized, then have someone attack him while he is so vulnerable.  He’s been attacked twice.  I asked him what he did when he was attacked, and he told me he just blocked the blows; he didn’t fight back. – Lavern Rushin.

The parents of a young black man, who was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome as a child and later experienced a traumatic brain injury, are asking Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to pardon their son and free him from prison after he received a 50 year prison term because of a three car, non-fatal accident. All but ten years were suspended conditional on his continued good behavior after the ten years are served.

It is usual for a car accident to draw such a lengthy prison term, but police and prosecutors claimed that Matthew Rushin, age 21, was attempting to kill himself when his car crossed a median in Virginia Beach and collided head-on with another vehicle January 4, 2019, seriously injuring its driver and causing that car to strike another one.

Matthew’s parents, Demetrius and Lavern Rushin, insist their son was not trying to end his life. He simply lost control of his car. They have accused the police of ignoring their department’s guidelines that describe how individuals with mental illnesses should be questioned. They also have accused prosecutors and the sentencing judge of treating their son, because he is black, much more harshly from white defendants involved in much worse traffic fatalities in their jurisdictions.

More than 166,000 supporters have signed a petition urging Matthew’s release. More than a hundred supporters marched in protest of his imprisonment and Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas has publicized his plight. Terra Vance has written extensively about the case on the Autism website NeuroClastic, including video of the police interrogation of Matthews.

What evidence is there that Matthew was attempting suicide?

In an email, Matthew’s parents wrote that after Matthew freed himself from the wreckage of his car, he was physically detained by two witnesses. The driver of one of the cars hit in the accident angrily yelled, “Are you fucking trying to kill yourself? Are you trying to kill us?” One of the police officers said he overheard Matthew say in response, “I was trying to killing myself.”

“Repeating words and phrases are how autistic people process language, especially when under stress,” his parents note.

When the police arrived at the accident, Matthew’s actions and statements were recorded on police body cams – more than 12 hours worth. A total of 17 officers came to the accident. Three of them were not wearing body cams. Those three claimed, without evidence, that they overheard Matthew say that he was trying to kill himself. This alleged statement was reportedly overheard minutes after Matthew climbed out of a vehicle where he’d just had a high speed collision – during which he had lost consciousness.  During the 5 1/2 hours when he was interrogated by police he never wavered that this was not an attempt to kill himself.

Matthew’s father arrived at the accident to help his son, he was stopped and barred by police from speaking to Matthew.

Because prosecutors told the media that Matthew had been attempting suicide, the story received much more attention than most car accidents. Matthew’s parents insist this coverage prejudiced and influenced the public, prosecutor, and judge. Danna Cusick, the wife of the driver who was seriously injured, told reporters in an interview that her husband George suffered infections and a traumatic brain injury. “He cannot speak, he cannot eat by himself, he needs total care, he cannot walk, he barely moves,” she told reporters. It cost the family $20,000 a month in medical bills.

Prosecutors filed attempted murder charges against Matthew but reduced those counts in return for a plea deal that had a recommended sentence of no more than six years and four months in prison. The judge ignored that recommendation and sentenced Matthew to 50 years, suspending all but ten. His parents said his autism and brain injury prevented him from fully comprehending the legal process and he was manipulated into signing the plea deal.

Although autism is different from a mental illness, they often go together. The Virginia Beach police department’s field guide states: “Officers interviewing a mentally ill person must guard against obtaining a false confession. Characteristic traits of mentally ill persons, such as disorganization of thought, deficits in executive functioning and attention, and impaired decision making, could contribute to self incrimination.”  In their email to me, Matthew’s parents cited two examples of white drivers involved in accidents being treated differently from their son.

Below are excerpts from our email exchange.


Matthew with his parents and younger sister (family photo, used by permission.)

Lavern Rushin:

At an early age, Matthew was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s, and an anxiety disorder.  He was diagnosed with speech delay at three.  In school, he was bullied, but he made the best of that situation by hiding out and honing his talents in the orchestra room.  He played the viola, the piano, and the trombone.

He graduated from high school with honors in 2016.  6 months later, he got into an accident after dropping a friend off at Urgent care.  It was during a blizzard; he spun out of control and landed in a ditch.  The police said he was probably in the ditch for about an hour before he was found.  He had a traumatic brain injury, a serious brain bleed, and collapsed lungs.  He was in a coma for several days, then spent two months in rehabilitation relearning how to walk, talk and feed himself.

He returned to college, but just online at first.  In addition to his diagnoses of autism, ADHD, and anxiety disorder, he now had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

On January 4, 2019, Matthew came running down the stairs around 7:00 PM.  When I asked him where he was going, he said to Panera to get some pastries. When he didn’t get back home by the time we expected him, we texted and texted him saying “Matthew, you are supposed to be home.”  No response.  I tracked his phone and it is exactly where the accident was.

At about 9:30, we get a phone call telling us that Matthew has gotten into an accident.  My husband went to the accident site.

Demetrius Rushin:

As soon as we received the call that Matthew had been in an accident, I went to the scene.  I was told I could not see Matthew – and I could not walk around in the area; I had to stay on the sidewalk or in my car.  I was at the scene for hours without being able to see or talk to Matthew.

The way I was treated by the officer took me straight back to an experience when I was 16 years old, driving my parent’s Buick Park Avenue in Memphis where we lived.  A white cop pulled up beside me and asked if I had keys for the car.  I said, “yes sir.”  He said, “pull over boy.”  I pulled over and I gave him my driver’s license and the insurance card.  He asked me, “Who is James Rushin?”  I responded, “my father.”  He asked me, “who is Charlotte Rushin?”  I responded, “my mother.” He asked if I still lived with them; I responded that I did. He walked back to his patrol car; when he came back, he said, “you are lucky” and he threw my drivers’ license and insurance cards in the car.  He had gotten a call he had to respond to.

The cops at the scene of Matthew’s accident handled me the exact same way.  It took me back to when I was 16 in Memphis dealing with those racist cops there.  It was like I was swooped back in time to the same feeling of helplessness, where there was nothing I could do.  The other couple were able to walk on the scene right up to our vehicle without escort, with no problem, and they weren’t questioned.  And I could do nothing but stand on the sidewalk or sit in my car.

Lavern Rushin:

That night, he left here, he went to Panera.  Matthew made a turn into the shopping area where Panera is located.  We don’t know the truth about what happened because the prosecution has their own version.Either a car clips him or he clips a car.  Matthew started to freak out.  He didn’t know what to do.  So, he took off.  His anxiety had gone through the roof.  He drove down First Colonial, a very busy street.  He was speeding.  He was trying to figure out what to do.  He was doing the breathing exercises his therapist taught him to calm himself.  He made a U turn, intending to return to the scene where the two cars clipped bumpers, but the next thing he remembers is losing control or the vehicle.  We know he thought he was braking but was actually hitting the gas. He thought that he didn’t remember anything between the U-turn and sometime after the crash other than LED lights and realizing he was in oncoming traffic.

He hit a car, that car spun out of control, there was a secondary collision from where Matthew’s vehicle spun.  All his airbags deployed. The only way for Matthew, who is autistic, has an anxiety disorder, claustrophobia, and who had no shoes, no glasses, and no jacket to get out of his car was to climb through the back. As he is climbing out, a witness restrains him. Then, a second witness comes and takes over restraining him. “Are you f….ing trying to kill yourself? Are you trying to kill us?   Matthew repeated back, “maybe I was trying to kill myself.”  Repeating words and phrases are how autistic people process language, especially when under stress.

Then the first police officer came over to Matthew.  Matthew was recorded on body cam the entire time he was at the scene of the accident.  Matthew was completely consistent with his responses to the officers throughout the nearly four hours of interrogation on the scene.  He was on the video recordings the entire time; he was on 12 hours of video when the videos from all the officers were included.  His Matthew’s answers were the same despite the officers’ efforts to persuade him he was trying to commit suicide.

There were 17 officers on the scene.  Only three did not have body cams.  Those three officers were the only ones who said that Matthew told them he was trying to commit suicide.  It doesn’t make sense. The body cam footage covers 7:34 PM to 12:45 AM and nowhere on a total of 12 hours (multiple body cams recording) of video did Matthew say he wanted to commit suicide.

EMS came out and did a sobriety test and confirmed that Matthew hadn’t been drinking and was not on drugs.  This is captured on the body cam footage.

It seems like they decided they had to charge Matthew with something, since one person was severely injured, and to justify seventeen officers showing up.

I have the entire discovery; the entire file.  When I read what the officers said, what the witnesses said, what the other people in the accident said. I could see that someone had influenced, coached the witnesses and victims, because their statements included information that they couldn’t have known unless someone had told them.  Also, there was no way for the officers to “know” Matthew was trying to commit suicide.

When they put Matthew in the first patrol car and read him his rights, he asked why they were reading him his rights.  The officer responded that they were detaining him. Matthew asked why and the officer responded, “I’m allowed to detain you for 72 hours.”  They moved him to four different patrol cars trying to get him to confess to trying to kill himself.  Matthew consistently responded that he lost control of the car; he was NOT trying to kill himself.  They questioned him for almost four hours at the scene.

According to the Virginia Beach General Order, they were supposed to take Matthew to the hospital for a mental and psychiatric evaluation.  But they didn’t.  I can only surmise that they didn’t so they would not have a third party to contradict the charge they were making against Matthew.  They knew he’d been unconscious; they could see the blood on his face; they commented about injuries to his face and mouth being beaten up, and he was unable to perform well on his field sobriety test because he was either too dizzy or in too much pain. Still, it was concluded that he was 100% sober (he was, and blew a .000 on a breathalyzer test).  Yet they moved him between four patrol cars interrogating him for hours rather than taking him to the hospital.

They took Matthew to the Police Station and put him in an interrogation room.  I’ve watched the video.  I could see his compulsive tendencies kicking in.  I could see that he was very disturbed; that he was trying to figure out what to do.  I also saw that he had hurt his knee.  Matthew was in the interrogation room for one hour and 45 minutes.  Detectives interviewed him, then they left him alone in that room by himself.  During the time he was alone in the room, he was in a corner not visible to the camera.  If they believed he was suicidal, they would not have left him alone, out of site where he could have killed himself by using his T-shirt or drawstring from his pants to hang himself from the camera mount.

We were not allowed to go to the police department because Matthew was over 18 years old. (He was 20 years old).  As soon as Matthew called, we jumped on the ball to get a lawyer for him.

The police treated him like a criminal from the very beginning. They wanted a conviction.  They wanted a conviction.

Demetrius Rushin:

This is unreal.  He never got any medical attention.  They asked him if he wanted medical attention and he said no. He was confused and extremely stressed, not able to make the assessment about whether he needed medical attention!

Lavern Rushin:

Matthew was denied bond for the stated reason that he was a danger to himself or others.  He was on a suicide watch the first 24 hours in jail, but never again after that.

The first judge who presided over the bond hearing said he needed a psychiatric evaluation.  Matthew was evaluated by a clinical psychologist on January 17, 2019.  The psychologist stated in his report that Matthew should be under the care of a psychiatrist and should be receiving ongoing psychotherapy to address his history of traumatic brain injury.  He did not find that Matthew was suicidal.  Mathew has had neither psychiatric care nor ongoing (or any) psychotherapy while he’s been incarcerated.

Matthew was seen by a different judge for the next bond hearing.  We asked for “house arrest” but the prosecution objected, and bond was denied.

The night before the next request for bond, three additional charges were added: two counts of malicious aggravated wounding and one count of hit and run.  These charges carried much longer sentences than the attempted 2nd degree murder.  Bond was denied again for the same reason of “danger to himself and others.”  The attempted 2nd degree murder charge was dropped.

The trial date was August 8, 2019.  Before the trial, Matthew’s lawyer talked to the prosecution and they came up with a plea deal to offer Matthew.  Matthew called us to tell us what they were offering.  We asked him if he understood the plea deal.  His response was that he wanted to come home.  Anyone who understands autistic people would see that he was not understanding; he was just focusing on coming home.  He didn’t have a social worker with him when he signed the plea deal.

Matthew’s lawyer didn’t have the aggression, passion, wasn’t hungry enough to fight for Matthew.  But she was a parent. I trusted her as a parent. But she didn’t adequately represent him.  She took the easy way out.  She didn’t bring up that Matthew is autistic.  She would always say that she didn’t want his medical information to come up. She was going through the motions.  She had a psychologist see Matthew only twice.  But I was the one contacting the psychologist to see him.

The hearing in August wasn’t a trial – Matthew was saying yes, yes, yes.  I know he is not paying attention to the questions.  I know him, he was just thinking about coming home.

At the November sentencing hearing, the prosecution had people give their impact statement.  They brought kids into the courtroom to say that Matthew killed their grandfather (who was NOT dead).  I think the impact statements are what did it for Matthew.  We had two dozen people, supporters of Matthew at the hearing.  They asked us why Matthew’s lawyer didn’t bring up his history, his medical issues.  I gave my testimony which included Matthew’s history. The psychologist who saw him in the jail explained Matthew’s anxiety and autism.

The Judge found Matthew guilty of all counts and sentenced him to 50 years with 40 suspended.

What happened at the sentencing hearing floored everyone.  The plea deal was explained as a sentence of 2- 6 years with a midpoint of 5 years.  But the judge sentenced Matthew to 50 years with 40 years suspended, but with supervision and lifelong requirements.

We saw how differently white people were treated by the court than Black people. On July 28, 2019, a white male killed a 17-year-old woman speeding.  He was speeding and he didn’t have a license.  He bonded out of jail that night.  Recently, a young lady in Chesapeake driving drunk killed a man on a bicycle and left him for dead. She bonded out.

Matthew was in the mental health block for over a year; and he received NO mental health services.  They have given him medication for anxiety.  It seems like they are doing that only to be able to say that he is receiving treatment.  He wasn’t evaluated at the scene and hasn’t had a physical evaluation since then despite having lost consciousness, having had a prior brain injury, having a pituitary cyst for which he was due evaluation the first part of 2019.

Demetrius Rushin:

To explain the emotions – I go through every last one.  I blame myself; Did I do something wrong?  What didn’t I see, what could I have done differently?  I go through all of them.  I have my mother and brothers, and sisters, I have prayer.

I’ve told Matthew since he was young, if something is out of your control, stop worrying, and let God handle it. I asked him if there is anything he could do now.  He says “no.”  I tell him to stop worrying and let God, just as I told him when he was younger.  I tell him he is going to have to be a man now. Whatever it is, you need to take care of Matthew.  “I don’t know what you are going through, you have to take care of yourself.”

Matthew is worried about school.  He wants to get back to school. I tell him that we will see that he gets the medical attention and care he needs first.  Then he can go back to school.  He will be a productive citizen.  I tell him that “as long as I have a breath in my body, you’ll be fine.”

This is hard to talk or write about.  I’m trying to hold it together.  I can be watching a movie and all of a sudden I’m crying.  But I have to be strong for Matthew.  I can’t ball up in the corner.  I have to be strong.  It’s rough but what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. As bad as this is, this too shall pass.  We’re going to get through it and he’s going to be fine.

Lavern Rushin:

As long as Matthew is behind bars, we are behind bars.  There is not a moment during the day that I don’t think about Matthew and what the next step will be.  I live, eat, sleep thinking and worrying about Matthew Rushin.  I have a lot of support with my family and friends.  People are calling, checking on us.  But it is really, really hard.  When I’m eating, I think, “what is Matthew eating.”  When I lay on my comfortable bed, I wonder what Matthew is sleeping on.  I worry about what medication they are giving him or will give him.  I don’t want him to be tranquilized, then have someone attack him while he is so vulnerable.  He’s been attacked twice.  I asked him what he did when he was attacked, and he told me he just blocked the blows; he didn’t fight back.

I live with the fear that one day I will get that phone call not only because of his medical issues, but I’ll get that phone call that something has happened.  That is what I live with every day.

It has been 564 days, which is 48,698,358 seconds, which is 811,639 minutes, which is 13,527 hours, which is also 81 weeks and 1 day too long since Matthew was arrested and put in a place he does not deserve to be! RIPPED AWAY FROM US! 556 days since I hugged my son. I was never allowed to speak to him in court. He was never allowed to look at us. We were constantly warned if we said hi, we would be held in contempt.

Matthew’s guilt was decided the moment the Virginia Beach Police stepped on to the scene of the January 4, 2019 accident. None of the 17 Virginia Beach officers followed their own standard operating procedures to transport an injured and mentally confused and distressed person for evaluation.

They did not exhibit any understanding of autism in their interpretations of Matthew’s comments and actions. Instead, they took advantage of his vulnerability as they handcuffed him, questioned him for nearly 4 hours at the scene, lied to him about evidence, isolated him from his family, charged him with 2nd degree murder with a claim that the accident was an intentional attempt to kill himself by deliberately driving head on into another car.

The facts don’t support his sentence, including the totality of the victim and witness statements, Matthew’s behavior and statements, and the forensic evidence.

It took less than 6 hours for Matthew’s freedom, his reputation, his future to be stolen by Virginia Beach Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice System.”

(The family has issued these documents in support of their son. This is a word document.)

Were Any of the Actions of the Virginia Beach Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice System Against Matthew Rushin Hate Crimes

NeuroClastic website founder, Terra Vance, posted a four part series about Matthew:
You can read part 2 to learn about the Virginia Beach Police Department’s training for autism and mental health crises.
And read part 3 to watch interrogation footage and learn more about how a plea deal was offered that took what was going to be a 10 year maximum sentence to a 50 year maximum.

Read more here.








About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.