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Matthew Rushin

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Would we criminally penalize a driver who fainted? Who had a seizure but didn’t know they had a seizure disorder? Who had an allergic reaction?
—Terra Vance[1]

Matthew Rushin (c. 1998–)[2] is a black and autistic young man imprisoned for a traffic accident. While forensic evidence suggests that Rushin tried to prevent the accident and transcripts suggest that he may have experienced a seizure while driving, he was charged with second-degree murder and ordered to spend 10 years in prison out of a 50-year sentence.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the autism rights movement, as well as concerned citizens, have protested Rushin's sentencing using petitions, letters, and the hashtag #FreeMatthewRushin.[3]

Background[edit]

i aspire to care about the world like you do. i aspire to love as much as you do. i aspire to have the mind-set that you do, to care for those … that aren't prepared for what’s to come.
—Matthew Rushin writing about his mother[2]

Matthew Rushin is an autistic young man with ADHD. He suffered a car accident in 2017 that left him in a coma; he survived but suffered a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.[4]

His mother describes him as a "completely honest and trusting" college student with a love of music.[5]

Accident[edit]

Rushin maintains he ended up on the wrong side of the road because he lost control of the car. Rushin does not recall what was going through his mind when he was “losing control” of the car. He recalls “the lights”. Rushin says he doesn’t recall “the truck spinning or the airbags going off”. He states that he remembers seeing that Ford and “coming to”.
—Court transcript[6]

Matthew drove to Panera Bread on a rainy night. He experienced an accident in the parking lot and began to drive away while crying and panicking. He reportedly realized that he should return to the scene and attempted a U-turn, saw another car coming, tried to brake, and then collided with the car.

Forensic engineer and crash reconstruction specialist Kurt Weiss believes that the accident was caused by pedal misapplication, which he notes is "a common cause of crash collisions among those age 16-20 and those with poor executive functioning, as is common in autism and ADHD." Matthew was likely startled when he saw a "NO U TURN" sign while making his U-turn and hit the accelerator when he thought he was hitting the brake. Weiss notes that Matthew's behavior was not consistent with that of suicidal people (who typically drive straight ahead into solid objects).[1]

The severe collision resulted in serious injuries to a man named George Cusick, who ended up in a coma for nearly 2 months.[7]

When Matthew climbed out the back of his vehicle, a man approached him, yelling "Are you trying to f!cking kill yourself?" and swearing. Matthew shrank back against his vehicle and began repeating "trying to kill myself." Repeating words and phrases is known as echolalia, and it's one way autistic people may try to calm themselves under stress. Many autistic people struggle to think and speak clearly when experiencing severe stress.[4] Witness testimony suggests that Matthew was "distraught" and disoriented to the point that he wasn't fully processing what other people were saying to him.[6]

When police arrived, Matthew was able to say that he was autistic. He told them repeatedly that he had lost control of his truck.[4] Though people are supposed to be taken to the hospital after car crashes, he was not taken there nor given any medical care.[6]

Imprisonment[edit]

Interrogation room footage shows Matthew pacing in agitation and making repetitive movements (aka stimming, a self-calming mechanism in neurodivergent people). At one point, he stopped abruptly and did not move, which is a sign of a potential seizure.[6][note 1] During the interrogation, his story remained consistent: he was extremely stressed, he made a U-turn, and he tried to brake before the crash.[8]

While Matthew signed a plea deal, his mother believes that he did not understand it. She says he told her repeatedly "I signed that plea agreement to come home."[9]

His mother reports that in prison, Matthew has not received medical attention,[9] even though he experiences severe headaches, dizziness so severe that he sleeps on the floor instead of in a bed, and episodes of complete blindness.[5]

Matthew was transferred to Nottoway Correctional Center, a facility with no air conditioning. People have raised concerns that the level of heat in the summer could be life-threatening, especially to someone who is medically fragile.[10]

Autistic activist Terra Vance reported that an inmate attacked Matthew, calling him a f*ggot and then punching and kicking him. Apparently Matthew was only given Tylenol afterwards.[11]

Public outcry[edit]

A Change.org petition to free Matthew Rushin has gathered over 150,000 signatures.[9]

The Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network issued a joint letter asking Governor Ralph Northam and Secretary Kelly Thomasson to review the case and rethink Matthew's punishment, as well as asking for better safeguards for people with disabilities in the criminal justice system.[12] The Autism Society's Tidewater Virginia chapter released an open letter asking for an appeal of the sentence, stating concerns that Matthew did not receive medical help or adequate support to understand his situation.[13]

Writer Mariah Person pointed out a similar case in which a white autistic young man from the same neighborhood drove recklessly through people's yards. He hit 14 cars and nearly killed 3 people (a pregnant mom and her small children). This young man spent no time in jail and was given one year of unsupervised probation; the case was not publicized and was heard in a juvenile court. Today, that white autistic young man goes to the same college as Matthew did before his arrest.[14]

Response[edit]

The Virginia Beach police department said that it reviewed what happened and found nothing wrong with how they handled Matthew's case.[15]

Notes[edit]

  1. Considering that repetitive movements ease stress in autistic people, and Matthew was just in a serious car crash, stopping and standing extremely still seems highly unusual.

References[edit]