Matthew Rushin and the Injustice System: The Worst Nightmare of Every Parent of an Autistic19 min read

This is the third article in a series on Matthew Rushin, a Black autistic mechanical engineering student who was charged with attempted murder for a traffic accident.

Seventeen police responded to the 911 call. None of them followed their training or protocols for responding to someone autistic or experiencing a mental health crisis. Matthew was experiencing a mental health crisis. And he’s autistic. And Black.

Officers used their training to exploit Matthew’s vulnerabilities and override his Constitutional rights.

Click here to read part 1 for the details of the accident.

Click here to read part 2 about the Virginia Beach Police Department’s autism and mental health training.

Why Prison?

Matthew’s accident was that. An accident. Sadly, a man Matthew hit was seriously injured.

This is a driver’s worst fear– the fear of accidentally causing someone else harm.

Matthew was left in a coma and suffered a traumatic brain injury, severe brain hemorrhaging, and two collapsed lungs just two years prior. He had to learn to walk again after that. His recovery was long and grueling, but he was eventually able to return to school and was working at Panera Bread.

Panera is where he was headed the night of the accident. He was going to buy pastries. This was a regular part of Matthew’s routine.

Deeply suicidal people don’t typically initiate that process with a trip to Panera for a Pecan Braid Croissant. Nor with a very minor accident in a parking lot.

Was Matthew’s bumping of a car in a shopping center parking lot a part of his elaborate plan to end his life?

No. Just, no.

Matthew hadn’t been in any kind of moving traffic incident since his near-fatal accident in 2017. He couldn’t have known the PTSD flashback this would provoke. His trigger hadn’t been activated since the initial trauma.

I’m an expert in trauma. And in autism. But I would trust a physics major to arrive at this same conclusion. Or a literature major. A subway musician. A dog walker. A janitorial custodian. A bus driver. A politician. A postal worker. A stay-at-home mom.

Basically, a jury of peers.

Matthew didn’t get that opportunity. He was manipulated into thinking he would get to go home to his mother if he signed a plea deal.

Evidence Presented to the Magistrate

Matthew was interrogated on scene, by SEVENTEEN officers, while in panic and autistic meltdown.

They repeatedly tried to tell him he had done it on purpose. Every single time, he maintained it was an accident.

We have already established that Matthew disclosed he was autistic, and that the police were trained in autism and mental health crises. If they really believed that he was trying to kill himself, they would have called a crisis intervention team (CIT).

They continued to tell Matthew that they had all this video footage that was damning, that proved he drove intentionally into oncoming traffic.

Later, much later, Matthew’s family was able to obtain this footage through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Here is That Damning Evidence

Go ahead and watch it all. Put all your forensic physics and fluid mechanics skills to the test, and see if you can prove that Matthew intentionally drove into traffic.

It’s incredible that seventeen cops were untrained in forensic auto collision analysis, but they felt confident to make this judgement call.

They were trained in autism, though.

Here’s a camera from a Target parking lot.

Spoiler alert: you likely can’t even find the crash. I never did.

Another from Target:

One from Total Wine:

One from Walmart:

Another from Walmart, pointed at the store and away from the road:

And a third video from Walmart:

In total, there’s about sixty-eight minutes of footage.

That is one hour and eight minutes of footage. Can you find something that looks like Matthew was trying to drive into oncoming traffic with intentionality?

A magistrate had time to view this footage and consider all the facts before issuing an attempted murder charge?

Checks and Balances

Philando Castile

Philando Castile was pulled over for having a wide-set nose. Basically, because he was Black. Officer Yanez fired seven shots into the car, point blank, after Castile volunteered that he had a legal handgun in the car that he calmly stated that he was not going to touch.

The world watched Castile die, moaning, “I wasn’t going to touch it.”

Time to Charge: 5 months

The Charge: second degree manslaughter

The Verdict: not guilty

Eric Garner

Officers accused Eric Garner of selling single cigarettes. Garner insisted he wasn’t doing anything and they were always harassing him. The officer said he’s going to arrest Garner, then within seconds puts him in a chokehold. Garner yelled, “I can’t breathe,” eleven times.

That video was crystal clear.

Time to Charge: five years

The Charge: case dismissed

Breonna Taylor

On March 13 of this year, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed when cops stormed her apartment because it was suspected she was receiving drugs into her home for an ex-boyfriend. She was shot seven times.

No drugs were found in her home.

Time to Charge: no charges issued to date

Charnesia Corley

Charnesia was (at the time) a 20-year-old college student pulled over for allegedly not coming to a full stop at a stop sign. Officers, admitting to being determined to find drugs on Charnesia, removed her pants and underwear in a public Texaco parking lot and searched her vagina for 11 minutes. When she didn’t want to spread her legs in public, the deputies told her that they would break her legs if she didn’t open them. They charged her with resisting arrest.

All of this was caught on camera. The world saw it. Charnesia didn’t die, but her life was stolen from her. She cannot even look at herself in the mirror after that kind of violation.

Time to Charge: one year

The Charge: official oppression

The Verdict: charges dropped

George Floyd

George Floyd was apprehended after he reportedly used a counterfeit twenty dollar bill in a convenience store. Officer Derek Chauvin restrained and pinned down a compliant George Floyd, then held him on the ground for approximately 9 minutes until he stopped breathing. Floyd repeatedly begged for the officer to move so that he could breathe.

He called for his mama.

Time to Charge: 4 days, amended 5 days later

The Charge: third degree murder and manslaughter, later changed to second degree murder and second degree manslaughter

The Verdict: Pending

Themes of Inequity

Time to Charging — If at All

It can take months, or years, before an officer is charged with a crime. They are given the benefit of the doubt, and the process to investigate an officer seems to be a long and detailed effort to find a way to avoid a charge.

The Black people above have been accused of selling loose cigarettes, having a wide nose, possessing marajuana, or potentially having a counterfeit $20, these are things for which white people are excused daily.

When an officer is involved in something that ends a person’s life– either by extreme punitive judicial treatment, forcible cavity searches in public places (institutional rape), or by literally murdering them– for something that is not criminal or is so unobstructive to society’s peace that the confrontation does not justify the impact it will have, then why are Black people so heavily policed?

After heavy protests in Ferguson, the federal Department of Justice launched an investigation into police activity in Ferguson. From an Atlantic article regarding that report:

Ferguson officials repeatedly behaved as if their priority is not improving public safety or protecting the rights of residents, but maximizing the revenue that flows into city coffers, sometimes going so far as to anticipate decreasing sales tax revenues and urging the police force to make up for the shortfall by ticketing more people. Often, those tickets for minor offenses then turned into arrest warrants.

This is systemic racism in action. White people are the main contributors to property tax because of generational wealth and privilege. White people usually “know someone” in city government. White people get listened to when they are mistreated.

Black people are denied jobs in this ecosystem. They often experience generational poverty because of systemic racism. They receive much higher penalties for much lower crimes. They are much more frequently wrongly-convicted.

And, I won’t belabor this article with statistics. Statistics about racial injustice require those in power to care enough to report on racial injustice. I don’t see many white people willing to give up their positions of power by admitting they have engaged in institutional oppression.

Benefit Versus Reward

Even when it’s obvious, like strip-searching a college student, a 20-year-old Black woman– by forcibly cavity searching her for 11 minutes in a public parking lot– charges get dismissed. They were willing to give her a permanent record of resisting arrest after publicly molesting her over a search for marajuana.

What marajuana user drives around with their personal stash of weed stored in their rectum?

What impoverished person deserves a permanent record (or death) for trying to sell loose cigarettes? How many of us walk around with a counterfeit pen marker and test all of our paper currency before purchasing something? Who even knows if their currency is counterfeit or not?

Black people and autistic people cannot continue to be over-policed and criminalized for trying to exist in such a hostile, segregated society. This will never stop until white non-disabled people demand that it stops.

Justice for Matthew would have meant that as much care and planning and advocacy– and as many privileged, knowledgeable people in positions of institutional authority– went into considering his case before giving him an attempted murder charge for an accident.

Virginia Beach Police Department Interrogation of Matthew Rushin

While the narrative has continued to be that Matthew admitted to trying to commit suicide by driving into traffic on purpose, and while multiple officers continued to tell him that was what he did, his story was consistent the whole time.

He did not intend to wreck.

From his interrogation, after more than four hours of interrogation and his story remaining consistent the whole time:

Transcript

Individuals Present

  • Person 1 (P1): individual facing Matthew Rushin wearing a black shirt, Officer Hosang
  • Person 2 (P2): individual sitting adjacent to Matthew Rushin, in between Person 1 and Matthew Rushin, wearing a jacket with POLICE across the back, Officer Dolida
  • Matthew Rushin (MR)

0:00 P1: Did you kind of see what was going on with the other people in the other car?

0:03 MR: No, I did not. I wanted to see.

0:06 P1: Okay.

0:07 MR: Are they okay? Are they-

0:08 P1: Well, they’re still in the hospital.

0:10 MR: Okay.

0:10 P1:  So I’m waiting on updates. Okay? And it was a very serious situation.

0:15 MR: Mmhmm.

0:16 P1: Okay. I’m not going to lie to you. The (unintelligible, possibly: one din D4), the driver?

0:19 MR: Mmhmm.

0:20 P1: Is not doing well. Okay?

0:24 MR: {Exhales} Okay.

0:28 P1: And that’s kind of why we have to get to the bottom of what happened.

0:34 MR: I was not in control of the vehicle. I was in control of me. I did not mean to hurt anyone. I did not mean to k- I didn’t even mean to kill that person if I end up killing that person.

0:48 P1: Okay.

0:51 MR: {Sniffing}

0:52 P1: What I worry is that you have to understand how it looks because-

0:57 MR: I know how it looks!-

0:58 P1: {Unintelligible sound}

0:58 MR: ‑It looks like I was trying to hit them. It looks like I was trying to kill myself.

1:02 P1: {Unintelligible, possibly: were you?}

1:03 MR: I know how it looks. No, I was not.

1:06 P1: Okay.

1:07 MR: But I understand how it looks.

1:10 P1: What do you think should happen?

1:12 MR: I don’t know. I mean, it’s in your hands. Ya’ll– ya’ll have – Ya’ll are judge, jury and executioner, so…

1:22 P1: We are not. We are not.

1:24 MR: {stutters} Ya’ll, ya’ll, ya’ll decide my future now because I’m in your hands.

1:29 P1: Okay.

1:29 MR: I didn’t… I… I mean, I’ll be more than happy {transcription ends}

And here is Matthew, explaining in the same exact words that any autistic might use to explain what it is like to be in the middle of a PTSD meltdown.

Autistic people will see this and interpret it different from non-autistics. Parents of autistic children will understand, too. They will see see the stimming, the rubbing of the head as he says, “I need to clear my head.” The fidgeting.

Transcript:

Individuals Present

  • Person 1 (P1): individual facing Matthew Rushin wearing a black shirt, Officer Hosang
  • Person 2 (P2): individual sitting adjacent to Matthew Rushin, in between Person 1 and Matthew Rushin, wearing a jacket with POLICE across the back, Officer Dolida
  • Matthew Rushin (MR)

0:00 MR: I need to clear my head so, so to speak.

0:08 P1: So you were saying earlier you were doing your breathing exercises.

0:10 MR: Yes.

0:11 P1: So how were you feeling before your breathing exercises?

0:14 MR: Um, well, I can, I was, it was hard to breathe. I was crying. I was… It wasn’t that I couldn’t think straight it was just like, I was just, frustration and anxiety, it was all floating, floating around in there while I was driving and…

0:37 P1: Were you angry?

0:39 MR: No.

0:40 P1: Weren’t angry about the accident? Even though you just had one*? And your parents were going to be ticked?

[*Context: while Matthew was sitting in his parked vehicle a few days prior, a car bumped his vehicle in the parking lot]

0:44 MR: No. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t mad because that accident, it wouldn’t, it wasn’t literally anyone’s fault but it was everyone’s fault so I wasn’t really mad at them.

0:56 P1: Okay.

0:58 MR: I was just…

0:59 P1: Um, are we going to do any more questions about the crash scene itself and the evidence?

1:09 P2: You know, you know, we filed a request for that video, right?

1:11 MR: Yes.

1:13 P2: And the video also shows that you’re going off the road, passing cars like they’re standing still, essentially. And you’re going twice as fast as they are.

1:22 MR: Mmhmm.

1:24 P2: What was the sudden decision to make that u‑turn?

1:28 MR: Uh, I guess I was doing my breathing exercises and it just hit me, ok, need to go back and that was why I made the u‑turn. {transcript ends}

Understanding Autism and Duress

For those who don’t understand autism, or who are interpreting this video as if Matthew is “like them,” they might see his flat tone as not caring. They might see his explanation of how things were happening in his head as being like someone who was intoxicated or high.

His arm motions are trying to help communicate the wordless morass of sensory input that goes through an autistic person’s head. They make sense to me.

They might expect that Matthew is doing what most people would do, which is performing in the interest of self-preservation.

But autistic people will see it as him answering as honestly as he can, as him trying to explain while he’s struggling to organize his thoughts and make words happen.

Even for those of us who are speaking autistics, language (and especially coherent language) isn’t always easy to make happen. We typically tend to need sensory deprivation and alone time to recover from a meltdown in order to be able to interact with others.

Growing Trends in Criminalizing Disability

According to an article entitled “Education or Incarceration? Ending America’s School-to-Prison Pipeline,” from Beth Tolley, director of educational strategy for the Alliance Against Restraint and Seclusion:

However, the reality is that children are being criminalized at younger ages and subjected to the juvenile justice system and/or the adult criminal justice system. Children who are poor; children of color; children with disabilities; children with mental health and substance abuse challenges; children facing neglect, abuse, and/or violence; children in foster care; and children who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) are most affected. Racial disproportionality remains and it gets worse as children of color go deeper in the system—from the point of arrest to post-adjudication placement.

Matthew was 20, but his diagnoses and neurodevelopmental disorders left him vulnerable and on an uneven playing field compared to his same-age peers. The VBPD knew this. Their crisis intervention team training and training on autism both would have made this apparent to them.

In fact, from the interrogation of Matthew (video 2 above), Officer Hosang asks:

Weren’t angry about the accident? Even though you just had one*? And your parents were going to be ticked?

It’s not typical for adults to be asked about their fears over their parents’ feelings. No one asks me when I express that I’ve missed an appointment if I’m angry because my parents are going to be upset about it.

The accident the week prior was while Matthew was sitting in his parked vehicle about to go into work, in the same parking lot as the one in which he clipped a car earlier that evening.

She treats Matthew like he is cognitively disabled. She treats him like he is a child who will be worried about upsetting his parents. She infantilizes him.

The Major Point of Inequity for an Autistic in an Interrogation

To the savvy, it’s clear to see that Officer Hosang is asking leading questions in an attempt to cause an autistic person– who cannot read her subtlety and is answering everything honestly– to incriminate himself.

It never worked, though. Because in the twelve+ hours of footage, Matthew never says he was purposefully driving into traffic.

Officer Dolida attempts to leverage that he is obtaining video that he implies will prove that Matthew was operating with intention:

1:09 P2: You know, you know, we filed a request for that video, right?

1:11 MR: Yes.

1:13 P2: And the video also shows that you’re going off the road, passing cars like they’re standing still, essentially. And you’re going twice as fast as they are.

1:24 P2: What was the sudden decision to make that u‑turn?

1:28 MR: Uh, I guess I was doing my breathing exercises and it just hit me, ok, need to go back and that was why I made the u‑turn. {transcript ends}

Shortly, I will be publishing court transcripts wherein every single witness at the scene noted that Matthew was incoherent, addled, disoriented, slurring, stuttering, confused, unable to control his body. Two pedestrians restrained him because he was flailing. His head was bobbing around.

This is not a person in the middle of a state of mind where he had the composition to make a decision about– well, anything. This is an autistic in a meltdown.

The Life of a Parent of an Autistic Child– and The Worst Nightmare of Those Parents

From the time an autistic child is diagnosed, as early as 18 months, rigorous behavior training is recommended for children. The goal is to have a “normal” life.

All the literature, all the books, all the parents opining about fears for their children’s futures– we tell autistic children and their parents that they have to follow all the steps, do all the therapies, be in all the interventions so that they can:

  • graduate
  • get a job
  • go to college
  • have friends
  • contribute meaningfully to society
  • be independent

Matthew had profound disability. He had a traumatic brain injury. ADHD. He was autistic. He had anxiety. He had such severe vestibular instability following his car accident that he had to sleep on the floor to get that deep proprioceptive feedback that the ground beneath him was stable. He had severe PTSD.

Despite all of this, despite such severe challenges, he was a mechanical engineering student at Old Dominion University. He had a job. He was extremely introverted and quiet, but those who knew him only had positive things to say about him. He volunteered of his own volition. He made relationships with elderly people and made sure they felt seen and appreciated.

He had no record. He had no discipline issues in school. He was sober. He loved his family and considered them his best friends. He aspired to be like his parents.

Matthew didn’t just meet those golden benchmarks autistic kids are pressured to meet. He exceeded expectations for any young adult navigating this society.

He did all this while being Black and disabled against all of the pressures of modern world.

…and yet.

The Myth of Independence

No one is independent. It took 17 officers and the involvement of many people to lock Matthew away for a decade. None of those people could act on that oppression without everyone else contributing to it.

Would the same thing have happened to a white college student without a disability? Or would the community– the world– have come out in droves to defend this model citizen with such a bright future?

We all know the answer to that question.

Of course it wouldn’t, because those people are not operating with independence. It takes the benefit of a whole systemic support scaffolding to survive unscathed.

But Matthew is Black. And autistic.

Former President of the United States George W. Bush had a DUI. His grades were substantially lower than Matthew’s, too. His wife, former first lady Laura Bush, killed someone in a car accident.

Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, accidentally shot a 78-year-old man in the face during Bush’s second term. Buck shot from that incident caused him to have a heart attack and collapsed lung, later. No charges filed.

In fact, from this article entitled “Politicians Who Were Arrested for DUI (State and Federal)”:

It appears that dozens of members of Congress each and every year escape DWI/DUI arrests by invoking their congressional privilege of immunity (Article one, Section 6).

Also see “Judges Who Were Arrested for DUI.”

That is called privilege.

Matthew did everything he was supposed to do, and he had an accident as a result of his disability. Someone was badly injured and he and his family have suffered. They didn’t do anything to deserve to be injured in an accident. It was tragic.

In fact, no victim of any accident deserves it.

The same system that pardons or refuses to charge officers who end the lives of Black people for nothing or for invented charges, that gives two Presidential terms to someone who had a former cocaine addiction and a DUI– whose wife actually did kill someone in an accident– were still able to rise to the highest rank of power and privilege in the world.

Sentencing: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

In fact, according to this ABC News article entitled, “For hit-and-run drivers who kill people, jail time is rarely a consequence,” most hit-and-run drivers who literally kill someone serve no prison time:

Between 2006 and 2017, the national number for annual fatal hit-and-runs has ranged between 1,220 and 2,089, according to American Automobile Association’s (AAA) 2018 Hit-and-Run Crashes Research Brief and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But, sources in government and the legal community told ABC News that people charged with fatal traffic offenses are regularly offered plea deals that allow them to avoid significant jail time.

That includes mostly people who had accidents because they were drunk or stoned.

50 Years, 40 Suspended

Something that has confused most of our readers is the bizarre sentence of 50 years with 40 suspended, meaning that he would serve 10.

First of all, Matthew was coerced into a plea deal that was emphatically not a deal. More on that later.

But 2nd degree malicious wounding is a maximum penalty of 20 years. Matthew’s plea deal was 2 counts. A hit-and-run is a maximum penalty of 10 years. That leaves a maximum penalty total of 50 years, which is what he got.

The original charge of 2nd degree attempted murder was 2–10 years.

His plea deal was far worse than his original charge. He thought accepting it would allow him to go home to his mom.

Matthew’s family was not present and would have never advise agreeing to that plea.

Talking to Matthew would make it obvious that he needed his family– caring advocates– to help him make decisions like that. He didn’t get that option.

That’s not how plea deals work. No one takes a plea deal that reduces their potential sentencing from 10 years to 50.

No one competent to make that decision at least.

This is beyond racist. This is beyond ableist. This is absolutely sadistic and evil. It’s unforgivable.

Those 50 years, with 40 suspended, allow for Matthew to spend until he is 70 years old on probation. The average life span for autistic people is 36–38.

To Be Continued…

Part 4 of this series focuses on who Matthew Rushin is and what his life was like before this accident. Upcoming articles include a look at inconsistent witness testimonies, reasonable doubt about witness tampering, the officers on scene the night of the accident, NAMI and Project Lifesaver, Constitutional rights violated, what players were involved in Matthew’s sentencing, autistic neurology, and Virginia Beach Police Department inequity in arrests sentencing concerning disabled, mentally ill, and Black suspects.

Until Matthew Rushin is pardoned, we will continue to shine a light on the factors involved in this gross execution of justice against Matthew Rushin.

Please review this petition from 757 Black Lives Matter to Governor Ralph Northam which contains more information about Rushin’s case and sign the petition, which currently (at the time of publication) has approximately 44,700 signatures.

Yesterday, the petition was at 14k at the time of publication. Thank you to the autistic community, to Black Lives Matter 757, and all the allies who are fighting for justice for Matthew Rushin.

Click here to contribute to the Rushin family legal defense fund.

7 Comments

  1. I bet Derek Chauvin gets a third of time (if any) compared to what Matthew Rushin received. One was blatant murder, the other was a clear accident. Disgusting.

  2. thank yuo for writing this –

  3. Where is his court appointed counsel? This sentence should be appealed if on no other basis than Mr. Rushin did not have the mental capacity, as demonstrated by the interrogation tapes, to plead guilty or no contest to the charges without advice of counsel. The police were well aware. The DA should have been aware as well. And the Miranda rights are on tape of course?

  4. You can see the crash on the 2nd camera. The one labeled PL Exterior Right. The crash happens at 7:41pm around the 16 to 17 second mark. You can see 2 sets of headlights coming on the left, all of a sudden it looks like one of those sets of headlights just vanishes into thin air. It’s a tragedy for sure, if he was behind the wheel, then he has to take responsibility for causing this near fatal crash.

  5. Taking responsibility does NOT mean being sentenced to 50 years!! Too bad he couldn’t use affulenza as his defense like Ethan Couch. This drunk white kid killed 4 people and was sentenced to 10 yrs probation and inpatient treatment for his “condition”. He violated his probation, ran away to Mexico, was captured and brought back to serve 2 yrs.. since then he’s violated his probation again by testing positive for drugs and is still walking the streets, not sure but he probably has a driver license too. It’s clearly black and white.

    1. It’s actually not a black and white thing. People just use that as an excuse to push their agenda. Look up Caytlin Emmett-Wallace. Same city and she’s a young white woman. Sentenced to 12 years which was well above what the sentencing guidelines called for. We all know the court system is flawed, but his skin tone wasn’t the reason behind his sentence.


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