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What If You Were Matthew Rushin’s Mother?

What if you were Matthew Rushin’s mother? You worried so many times as you watched how difficult life could be for him, and your heart filled with pride each time he made his way over yet another obstacle. Learning he was autistic and had ADHD was frightening at first, yet it helped put his struggles in perspective and helped explain why some things were difficult for him while in other ways he was ahead of the curve. 

His musical ability brought you such joy. He didn’t just play the piano and the viola; he composed his own music and played viola solos with the orchestra. He made those instruments come to life. Even watching his hands as he “tickled the ivories” was amazing — such incredible talent! 

Despite living in a world that can often derail autistic kids, or kids with ADHD — it seemed like Matthew was making it. When the bullying became overwhelming, he found solace in the orchestra room and used that time to develop his musical talents. Seeing him not just graduate, but graduate with honors, was a dream come true. He had his whole beautiful life ahead of him. Surely, now, he could breathe and celebrate his victories.

You were delighted when he started classes at Old Dominion University (ODU) as a mechanical engineering student. You enjoyed participating in community volunteer work together where he kept your calendar and never missed a date. He even led one of the volunteer events.

Then, on January 6, 2017, your world nearly came to a stop when he had that horrendous single car accident driving in the snow. He was in a coma for days. He had to completely relearn how to walk, talk, eat and take care of himself. But he did! He survived — and in typical Matthew fashion, he went back to thriving. 

But his life was not without challenges. He lived with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the doctors found a pituitary cyst during the many evaluations that were done after his accident. The cyst needed to be monitored to be sure it did not grow or cause damage. 

Though it was a cyst, not a malignancy, any growth in the brain is reason for concern as it can compress other delicate brain structures.  He had a new normal and new obstacles, but he was thriving by all standards, despite those challenges.

Matthew’s life was back on track, starting back with his classes at ODU, working at Panera, volunteering, playing his music and enjoying time with his girlfriend. Maybe now you could breathe.

Then you got that awful call on January 4, 2019. Matthew had been in a car accident. He had gone out to get pastries at Panera and to see his girlfriend after her shift. But he never made it to Panera. 

Your husband, Demetrius, went right to the scene of the accident. He was treated like a criminal, not allowed to see Matthew, to talk to Matthew, or to go anywhere near the scene — while other people walked about freely. Demetrius waited hours in the cold January rain to see Matthew — or at least to hear how he was doing. Finally, someone told him that Matthew was no longer there; he had been taken away in a police car 45 minutes earlier.    

Despair, utter despair gripped you and your husband when you learned that he had been taken to the magistrate to be charged with attempted second degree murder. What?! How could that be? Attempted murder? What had happened? How could that charge even be a possibility? And you learned that he was overheard at the scene, immediately after crawling out of the back of his vehicle, commenting that he wished he were dead, he should be dead. 

One of the policemen said that your beloved son had even said he was trying to kill himself — after one of the accident victims screamed at him and asked him if he was trying to kill himself. And that is how they came up with their charge. Based on those comments Matthew made during a crisis, right after an accident. Why didn’t any of the police on the scene know that repeating back what is said is how many autistic individuals process information?

All the witnesses, as well as police who observed him immediately after the crash, said he wasn’t fully with it. They described him using these words: distraught, not seeming to be all there, not hearing what was being said to him, not processing information, not really answering very well, speech slurred, disturbed mentally, maybe shock, struggling to answer questions. Mathew was bleeding and sore. They didn’t bother to clean the blood from his face hours later when they booked him and snapped his mugshot. 

But the worst thing is, they didn’t take him to the hospital for an evaluation. He had lost consciousness during the accident, was bleeding from the head, his speech was slurred and he wasn’t making sense. But they didn’t take him to the hospital! Why not? They handcuffed him! Why on earth would they do that? I thought that Virginia Police Officers received training about autism. Surely one of the 17 officers that were on the scene had that training and realized how terrifying it is for an autistic person to be restrained, to be handcuffed!

Your heart breaks every time you think of him alone, terrified, physically hurting as they move him from one police car to another, hammering him with questions about what happened. You know your son. He would have been polite, patient, even though he was terrified.

New situations are particularly anxiety provoking for autistic individuals. Matthew is known for being completely honest and trusting — it would have been harder for him to stand up for himself if he was being lied to or misled. 

Anyone who had been through the trauma he had experienced in the accident would be experiencing extreme stress. The part of the brain that is working in such circumstances is the survival brain, not the part of the brain that that deals with thinking, problem solving, figuring things out. The police and EMT should know this!  

With Matthew being autistic and living with PTSD, you shudder thinking of how distressing this was for him. Shoeless that January evening, because his shoes fell off when he climbed out of the vehicle, and scared to death, they questioned him for nearly four hours at the scene, then took him to the police station for more questioning, then to the magistrate’s office to charge him with second degree attempted murder.

The charge made no sense. For an accident? How can they even do that? He wasn’t seen by a psychiatrist or a psychologist! Can just anyone decide that someone was attempting to kill himself? 

And to this day you worry about the lack of medical attention Matthew was given that night. The collision was intense! All the airbags deployed. Matthew was bloody, sore and confused.

Bond. You figured you would get him out on bond and hire a lawyer, whatever the cost, to prove that he was not homicidal or suicidal. But at the hearing, bond was denied! The judge said he was a danger to himself and others. On what basis? How can they just decide to say that without a qualified mental health professional seeing him and making that assessment? 

Apparently, they can just decide, because they did the same thing at each bond hearing. Why? Do they hate Black people? Autistics? You wondered if you were missing a crucial piece of information.

You tried, though his lawyer, to get permission to take him to his overdue neurology appointment and also to have him be evaluated by a neuro-psychologist. But the judge denied those requests, even though you were going to pay the costs. 

So, every day you worried, and you still do. He has a brain cyst — taking up space in his brain. He can’t sleep in a bed because he gets dizzy unless he’s on a hard surface. He sleeps on the floor. He has severe headaches. And sometimes he can’t see… he is totally blind. Yet medical and mental health services were not being provided to him by the jail. How can someone be declared a danger to himself (and others) and be prevented from being released on bond — yet not receive treatment?

And then the worst betrayal of all occurred. His lawyer convinced him to sign a plea agreement. 

Matthew told you that his lawyer said he could come home if he signed the paper. After seven months of pain, anxiety, isolation from your family — the only thing he was able to focus on was a promise that he could go home if he signed the agreement. He still doesn’t understand that by signing that paper, he was saying that he intentionally ran into the other car — that he was trying to kill himself. 

Mathew was 20, but he is autistic, has ADHD, PTSD, one very serious brain injury which resulted in brain functioning impairments, and he had been living with serious, untreated medical symptoms for months. True to his selfless nature, he didn’t want anyone to worry. He never really knew what threshold of suffering was too much. You had cancer, and he didn’t want to worry you.

Any one of those conditions could impact his ability to make an informed decision without adequate support in the form of an advocate qualified to ensure that he fully understood the consequences and ramifications. But by law, he was an adult. He could sign a piece of paper. He trusted his lawyer.

But of course, that didn’t happen. Now the prosecutors could tell the judge and the media that Matthew admitted he ran into the other car on purpose. You were, and still are, so full of anger and despair. No matter how hard you had tried, you could not protect him from a system that was determined to take his freedom away from him, to take him away from you.

In November, at the sentencing hearing, your family and friends had to listen again to the prosecutor vilify your child, paint a picture of a person who is completely unrecognizable to everyone who knows Matthew. You tried to understand the motivation for such hate. The motivation to decide on a charge, an unsubstantiated charge, then proceed from the night of the accident as though the charge was a fact, ignoring the evidence that clearly pointed in other directions. 

You asked yourself again. “Do they hate Black people? Do they hate autistic people? Why would anyone, let alone an entire criminal justice system, treat another person the way Matthew has been treated?” And the judge — his proclamation that Matthew was selfish, that he intentionally “committed a selfish act,” not thinking of anyone else, is so far off base, and so cruel. 

No one in the criminal justice system saw your son as a human being, as a person of value. They didn’t take the time to learn anything about him. They didn’t consider the diagnoses of autism or ADHD or anxiety or PTSD when they were making the decision to charge him, when they were deciding to deny bond, when he was convinced to sign the plea agreement, when they denied him medical and mental health services, and when they gave him a 50-year prison sentence, a longer sentence than the guidelines recommend. 

You watched the videos of his interrogation the night of the accident. He was polite and respectful, even though he was hurt and scared, even when badgered and lied to by the officers.

You’ve been doing everything you can to bring attention to how unfairly Matthew has been treated. And finally, you got an appointment scheduled for him to have an MRI. Hopefully, that would be the start of figuring out the source — and the treatment — for the headaches, dizziness and periods of blindness. March 13 didn’t seem too far away. 

But then suddenly, with no notice or explanation, on March 10, Matthew was transferred to Nottoway Correctional Center, a facility far away from the medical team that knows him and has his records — far away from any medical facility for that matter! You were now two hours from your son. You learned that Nottoway has no air conditioning. And then COVID-19 hit America. 

All efforts to reschedule the MRI were put on hold. But Matthew’s headaches, dizziness and blindness were not on hold. With the heat, his symptoms became more severe.

So here you are now. Matthew has been away from you for 18 months now. The new lawyer you hired has prepared and presented a request to the Governor for a pardon. Lots of people outside of the criminal justice system are working very, very hard to provide information to the Governor about all of the facts related to the accident and his treatment in the criminal justice system so the decision to grant Matthew a pardon should be easy. 

Now we wait. 

And his headaches, dizziness and blindness continue. 

Matthew lost his freedom the instant the police arrived at the scene of the accident. Zero days from an accident to incarceration with no bond.  The request for a pardon was delivered to the Governor and the Parole Board on June 18. Eighteen days and counting. Why is it so easy to imprison someone on a charge that is unsubstantiated, but so hard to return that person’s freedom when there is overwhelming documentation that the charges, conviction and sentence were terribly unjust?

Your soul is shattered… Your heart breaks a little more every day…

And you wait…

— Beth Tolley
Director of Educational Strategy, Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

To support Matthew and his mother, sign this petition on Change.org.

All images provided by Lavern Rushin