The Latson Case in Virginia: A Danger Signal That We Can’t Ignore
Teresa Champion is an attorney admitted to the bar in Kentucky and Washington State. She has two children; Sydney and James, who has a diagnosis of autism. She is a long time civic and community activist, who works with the Fairfax Autism Network (FAN) and the Virginia Ability Alliance (VAA). Champion is a member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA). Currently, Teresa is volunteering for the Virginia Autism Project (VAP) as the Northern Virginia Regional Director.
The Cry for Help:
I sat in the courtroom and sobbed. I had never met this young man and I had just met his mother in person that morning. Even though we were essentially strangers, I viscerally felt the anxiety and fear of this family. Reginald “Neli” Latson has Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and was on trial for injuring a school resource officer. I too have an 18-year old son with autism.
The evidence showed that Neli, in resisting arrest, had severely injured the officer, but only after an interchange that magnified his inability to process verbal input and significantly increased his sense of uncertainty and apprehension. The officer had been alerted to look for an African American teenage male carrying a gun. Neli had been sitting waiting for the library to open. He had no gun. Although initially cooperative when the officer approached him, Neli stopped cooperating when the police officer asked him for his name. He had done nothing wrong. The “rule,” he knew, was that police officers went after people who had done something wrong. Since Neli knew he had not done anything wrong, to his concrete way of thinking, he didn’t need to obey the police officer. So he didn’t comply with the police officer’s request that he identify himself and attempted to leave the scene. It is undisputed that Neli did not possess a gun or any other weapon. Until he encountered the officer, he had committed no crime. The basis for the arrest was a county ordinance that makes it a crime to refuse to identify yourself in response to a request from a law enforcement officer.
Neli was found guilty of charges associated with an assault and the jury recommended a sentence of 10 ½ years. In Virginia, the jury recommends a sentence and the judge imposes the sentence at a later date. In Virginia, there is no parole. He will serve every day of whatever sentence he is given.
Many ASD families who read about this case thought, “that could be my son/daughter.” If the autism community doesn’t do something quickly, similar outcomes could face many more of our young adults.
How do we stop this from happening again? We must educate and train the community at large about autism. How do we help this young man and his family? Try to explain autism to the Judge and ask for treatment not punishment.
Helping the community at large:
During the pre-trial interviews of prospective jury members only one person was aware of Asperger’s Syndrome. He did not make it into the jury box. When Neli was being interviewed at the police station after the tragic event, he was asked if he had any sort of disability. When he said he had Asperger’s, the police officer interviewing him said, “What’s that?” That is too late. Although the injured officer in this case has a disabled son, he didn’t recognize someone with an ASD when he encountered him, nor was he trained to deal with the likely consequences of Neli’s disability.
As this population with an ASD ages and those individuals, like Neli, who didn’t have access to adequate treatment and therapy become adults, we must explain autism to the community at large. Just like we had to do for our children’s teachers, caregivers, and family members when they were younger. We worked for acceptance and training everywhere they went.
We have to be one step ahead of our adults with an ASD in the community. We must talk honestly about the hallmarks of someone with an ASD and also educate our young adults on how to interact with someone in law enforcement. We have to show our disabled adults how to be interviewed and possibly arrested by the police. Statistics show they are seven times more likely to encounter law enforcement than the general population.
The legal system is not equipped to deal with individuals that can’t respond appropriately and/or control their response because of a disability. We have a lot of work to do to educate and train the judicial and legal systems and the community at large.
Helping Neli and his family:
Helping Neli and his family is a more complicated issue. Funding supports in the community so that someone can be supported and live with a disability safely is a long-range goal that can’t be ignored. A more immediate goal is let this 19- year old disabled man (who likes to read Goosebumps books) and his family know that he is treasured and they are cared about. Most importantly – support the attorneys and professionals working to present a sentencing report to the judge that will explain the side of autism that the jury never got a chance to hear and understand. He should be given rehabilitation and treatment not further incarceration. Neli has been in jail since this incident happened in May, 2010 but he has been trapped inside the cell of autism his whole life.
Pay attention to this case and pray.
The Autism Safety Project provides First Responders with information and guidelines for communicating with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in emergency situations.
Here is a letter submitted to Judge Sharp from Gary Mayerson, the Director of Autism Speaks Federal Appeals Project.