International Wrongful Conviction Day is a day to raise awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction and to recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional costs of wrongful conviction for innocent people and their families.WrongfulConvictionDay.org
This year, I have become painfully aware of how vital this work is and how painful the toll is on families and loved ones of the wrongfully accused. It started with Matthew Rushin, then Champ Turner, then RJ Brothers, then Japharii Jones.
These four cases are all from Virginia Beach.
How People End up In Prison
If police want, they will charge someone with several different crimes for a single event on a bad day, then more will be tacked on later in order to terrify the person– even if innocent– into accepting a plea deal.
Resisting arrest and/or assault on an officer are usually in the list of charges when there is obvious animus towards a “suspect.”
If the prosecutor or police department want someone to do time, they have no problems exploiting the law to tack on every potential charge in the book to entangle people in frivolous legal battles and prevent them from being able to defend themselves.
Simply grazing an officer’s wrist or accidentally stepping on their boots while they are manhandling you unnecessarily can be called an assault, and writhing in pain can be called “resisting arrest.”
Case in Point
This is not rare, either. This happens all the time.
For example, RJ Brothers of Virginia Beach, who was marching with Lavern Rushin (the mother of Matthew Rushin, a Black autistic college student who was sentenced to 50 years for a non-fatal car accident), was treated this way while he was live-streaming the march.
Note: It is not illegal to march on a roadway on which traffic has been blocked. It is only illegal to obstruct the flow of traffic. Clearly, there was not traffic, and the police insisting that the large crowd divert to the narrow sidewalk was an abuse of power.
Here is that arrest from another angle:
An assault did happen that day, against RJ Brothers, who has an artificial knee and diagnoses of ADHD, major depressive disorder, and PTSD. This was Captain John Thomas Orr of the 3rd Precinct in Virginia Beach. If this is the behavior modeled by the captains, then can we expect that deescalation, accountability, and fairness are prioritized?
I would later be tagged in a Tweet from an account that seems to be an agent provocateur for VBPD. This is an act of animus that is both a demonstration of abuse of power and the total lack of understanding about neurodivergence that is rampant in most police departments:
And later, in the same political stunt that resulted in the felony arrest of the Black Senator, Louise Lucas for “injury to a monument,” — a monument purposefully erected on the site of a slave auction block and whipping post— RJ Brothers would be arrested at the same time as Senator Lucas for the same charge, despite video evidence that he was not in any way injuring a monument:
Note that the comments on social media happened before the arrests, indicating that there was already collusion and conspiracy to implicate RJ from someone who had information about his employment application history with VBPD.
If this isn’t evidence of conspiracy to bury someone vulnerable for practicing their Constitutional Rights (and crossing the “thin blue line”), I don’t know what is.
Virginia is undergoing a special legislative session to focus on changing laws that disproportionately affect marginalized people in the justice system. SB-5032 was originally intended to defelonize assault on an officer, a crime that currently carries with it a 6 month mandatory minimum sentence that could be as long as five years.
It should be noted that a simple assault does not even need to include physical touch and can include just the reasonable threat of it. In fact, the legal definition is, “an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.”
Battery is any harmful or offensive contact. Tickling someone, tapping on their shoulder to get their attention, or lobbing a snowball at someone can be an assault and battery crime.
In this current iteration of the SB-5032, the crime remains a felony, but the mandatory minimum is removed. There was much discussion in last Wednesday’s Virginia House Courts of Justice Committee meeting about disability, and specifically autism, in discussion of this law.
A representative of the state police said that removing the mandatory minimum would make the charge “open season” on officers.
First, this is absurd.
But, to assuage any and all fears that removing the felony charge and mandatory minimum time would mean that people will suddenly lose their damn minds and randomly attack officers, specify that a felony assault on an officer charge can be issued when the assault is unprovoked. By unprovoked:
- the officer has in no way interacted with the assailant
- the officer is not attempting to arrest the assailant and has not touched or demonstrated the intent to touch the body of the assailant
Problem solved. Just fix up the legal jargon. No more “open season” smoke and mirrors. You’re welcome.
Or, you know, they could just acknowledge that this law exists for when there is actual injury:
§ 18.2-51.1. Malicious bodily injury to law-enforcement officers, firefighters, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel; penalty; lesser-included offense.
In fact, there are many laws with heavier sentences for any crimes of violence or attempted violence, and we can stop pretending that assault on an officer is a crime typically given to people who intend to harm officers.
Or, we can stop pretending and playing polite when emotional appeals about the safety of police officers trump the preponderance of evidence that policing is open season on Black people and disabled people.
If we know that 40 percent of police officers are domestic abusers, why is it so hard to acknowledge that officers can be people who abuse their authority frequently?
NeuroDiversity Advocacy Needs Actual Diversity
What autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people need lawmakers to understand is that when lawmakers are interacting with non-autistic parents of autistics, they are most frequently interacting with privileged, highly-connected white parents who have nonspeaking, high-support-needs children.
And that is a perspective that needs to be heard, but that is not the demographic who is most vulnerable to police misconduct.
The homeless people, the Black and Brown autistics who are undiagnosed because of systemic biases, the people with undiagnosed PTSD who can’t regulate their fight-or-flight response when confronted by authority or touched without consent– those are the people most vulnerable to police misconduct.
And they’re not usually diagnosed.
Wrongful Convictions of Disabled People Should Be Considered Murder
Please abide with me the reality that I have lost 5 friends in the last two years to suicide. Probably. One or two may have been accidental overdose.
In May, my friend Patrick took his life.
One day, Patrick was very drunk. His mother called to get him help for a mental health crisis, and police showed up. He was having a meltdown.
Instead of trying to deescalate the situation or help him access supports, police arrested him. Patrick spat on the officer who was trying to be an authoritarian. He was charged and convicted of felony assault against an officer. Three years, two suspended. He was locked up for a year, then again when he missed a parole check-in.
In January, my friend Eric took his life.
Eric, another friend of mine, killed himself in January. He’d spent a year in prison for sneezing while in cuffs. He was in cuffs for getting caught smoking weed. Again, “spitting” on an officer.
The frivolous conviction for a sneeze was a death sentence.
Autistic folk, people with PTSD, ADHD, and other diagnoses have reduced executive function. That means that everyday tasks are overwhelming, and adding fees, appointments, court dates, etc. Further, being incarcerated can cause someone to lose access to financial supports.
After someone is convicted of a felony, their access to life is dramatically reduced. Any of the fragile footing a person with a disability may have maintained in the world of 9-5 or emotional equanimity is shattered. Their trauma is worse, which means their executive functioning is worse.
I feel like my friends were murdered by their felony convictions.
Sometimes police brutality comes in the form of a knee on the neck in a prone restraint, like with George Floyd, or 30 gunshots into a car, like with India Kager. Sometimes, it is a slow death of systemic failure.
This world needs people who buck against the status quo. The status quo maintains all oppression, and if you list ten of the most pivotal people in the history of human progress, it’s likely that all ten were neurodivergent.
They weren’t diagnosed, of course, and neither are most of the autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, and otherwise neurodivergent adults who can speak fluently.
We can say that Socrates willingly killed himself, but forcing an autistic person into a choiceless existence is murder. That’s what these convictions cause.
You’re not listening. We have to yell.
Don’t compromise because someone made an emotional plea about widowers of police officers. The time for mannerly diplomacy is over. What about the spouses, parents, children, and loved ones of Black and disabled people who have laws stacked against them?
Facts: top ten most dangerous jobs in America (source):
1. Logging workers (98 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
2. Fishers and related fishing workers (77 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
3. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers (59 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
4. Roofers (52 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
5. Refuse and recyclable materials collectors (44 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
6. Driver/sales workers and truck drivers (26 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
7. Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers (25 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
8. First-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers (24 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
9. First-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers (21 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
10. First-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service, and groundskeeping workers (20 fatalities per 100,000 workers)
This list left off some relevant careers, like underground coal miners (85 per 100,000). My father was a coal miner. A mountain fell on him. Three times, mountains fell on him.
But in 2019, only 44 officers died in the line of duty due to felonious acts. Only 5 of those were due to unprovoked acts. That is 0.6 fatalities per 100,000 officers due to unprovoked violence (source: FBI).
Essentially, that means that police officers are far less vulnerable to unprovoked violence than the general population.
I’m sorry, but there is no excuse to platform these outrageous emotional and specious appeals when Black and disabled lives are being oppressed daily.
Numbers Don’t Lie Except in Elections When Minorities are Prevented from Voting
For perspective, in 2019, 20 people were killed by being struck by lightning. Where is the legislation that prevents that tragedy? (source)
At least 15 people are killed by falling icicles in the US every year, according to the Snow and Ice Management Agency (source). These deaths are grizzly, often involving decapitations, crushed skulls, and severed extremities. Of note, they are exactly, 1-to-1 as malignant as a car crash involving a seizure.
RJ Can’t Do Six Months
RJ Brothers is a marginalized person with ADHD, PTSD, an artificial knee, and major depressive disorder trying to advocate for justice for Matthew Rushin and against racism. Since his arrests, he can no longer sleep at nights.
He’s working 10+ hours per day, doing any job he can, to keep his family financially secure. His fiance is out of work due to COVID. If RJ has to spend six months incarcerated because an officer wanted to abuse him, his family will not be able to survive.
He will lose the business he has built, any access to self-accommodations, and his right to vote. The psychological torture of feeling targeted and knowing that authority figures can and will remove your freedom, in broad daylight, with the total support of the Commonwealth Attorney and (in)justice system is inhumane.
It makes existence traumatic.
There is time to stop the wrongful conviction of RJ Brothers before it’s too late.
Matthew Rushin, Champ Turner, RJ Brothers, and Japharii Jones need to be exonerated.
Imagine the voting power we could mobilize for change if we freed and exonerated all the wrongfully convicted dissenters out there.