Virginia’s governor this week conditionally pardoned a young Black man with autism who was serving 10 years in prison after being involved in two car crashes in 2019 that left two people seriously injured.
Matthew Rushin was on his way to pick up pastries at a Virginia Beach Panera on January 4, 2019, when he struck a moving vehicle in a parking lot and fled, authorities said. He then drove head-on into oncoming traffic and struck another vehicle, leaving two people seriously injured, according to the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
The 22-year-old pled guilty to two counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run, personal injury, the prosecutor’s office said. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison with a judge suspending 40 years from it, prosecutors said
However, Rushin’s family, as well as members of the the autism community, have been calling for his release, saying that authorities did not provide appropriate accommodations or consider his communication access needs.
This week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam reduced Rushin’s sentence, setting him on a clear path to be released by next spring.
“Mr. Rushin was sentenced for 50 years, despite sentencing guidelines that call for a sentence of 2 years 7 months up to 6 years 4 months,” Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the governor, told CNN’s Joe Sutton. “Governor Northam’s conditional pardon aligns Mr. Rushin’s sentence with these sentencing guidelines.”
Rushin’s family says he did not have malicious intent
Rushin’s family and prosecutors differed on whether his mental state or suicidal intent played a role in the 2019 incident.
“When officers arrived on scene, Rushin climbed out of his vehicle and stated that he was trying to kill himself. Investigation revealed that he was driving approximately 65 m.p.h. right before the crash and did not apply his brakes,” prosecutors said in a statement last year.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin D. Stolle, who said his office was notified of the governor’s plans last week, extended his support to the crash victims and their families. He said the sentence imposed by the court “appropriate.”
“Our hearts go out to the victims and their families in this case for the ongoing pain and legal process that they have had to endure,” Stolle said in a statement. “While it certainly is within the Governor’s authority to do so, this office believes that the sentence imposed by the court was appropriate, just and fair.”
Rushin’s mother, Lavern Rushin, has said the crash was not intentional, and her son was wrongly convicted.
“It’s a terrible feeling to know that it wasn’t an intentional crash and he’s innocent,” Lavern said during a rally in June, according to CNN affiliate WTKR. “He’s sitting there enduring what he’s enduring.”
For months, Rushin’s family along with advocates and activists, including Black Lives Matter 757, advocated for his release.
His photo appeared in posters and social media posts, alongside the words “Black Autism Lives Matter.”
Camille Proctor, founder and executive director of The Color of Autism Foundation, which aims to educate and assist African American families with autistic children, said Rushin and other people of color with disabilities usually don’t get an opportunity to express their needs when interacting with police.
“They see a Black person, they see a Latinx person, they see a brown person and they begin to make judgments and they move forward with their biases,” Proctor said.
What the pardon means
With the governor’s pardon, Rushin could be released within months – but he must agree to a series of strict guidelines.
That includes: not being allowed to drive again, supervised probation for five years and taking part on “mental health treatment, counseling and a substance abuse evaluation,” Yarmosky said.
Miriam Airington-Fisher, an attorney representing Rushin, celebrated the governor’s decision, saying her client’s case “received a full and thorough review.”
“Today, we are thankful that Governor Northam granted Matthew Rushin’s pardon in an expeditious manner,” Lavern Rushin said in a statement. “This is the first step in proving that Matthew did not have malicious intent.”
Update: This article has been updated to add comments from The Color of Autism Foundation.
CNN’s Joe Sutton and Steve Forrest contributed to this report.