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 preliminary blog, ‘The Latson Case in Virginia: A Danger Signal That We Can’t Ignore’ can be read here.
Reginald “Neli” Latson’s sentencing hearing took place in Stafford County, Virginia Circuit Court on Tuesday May 31st. In March, Neli was found guilty of charges associated with an assault of a police officer 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. Virginia law has no provision for parole. Neli will serve his entire sentence.
The courtroom was packed with people who came to show support for Neli and for a sentence that would both protect the community while providing desperately needed services for Neli. There were no seats to be had and a number of people stood throughout the long afternoon. A number of members of the Stafford community who know Neli were present, including the owner of the car wash where Neli worked through his vocational program, as well as family friends and neighbors. Also present were many parents of children with autism, representatives from the Arc of Northern Virginia, the Autism Society of Northern Virginia, and Autism Speaks. There were also several adults with autism in the courtroom who had traveled to Stafford to demonstrate their support.
Five witnesses testified for the defense: two experts who had evaluated Neli — a psychiatrist and a pediatric neuropsychologist who both specialize in autism spectrum disorders; the vice president of the residential school that is part of the proposed treatment plan; and two individuals from the community who had very close relationships with Neli: a school social worker who worked with him between 9th and 12thgrade, and Neli’s middle school wrestling coach. They all gave powerful and informative testimony. The testimony established that Neli has a diagnosis of autism and intellectual disability and that these conditions explain why he behaved as he did in the encounter with the police officer. The testimony further established that while Neli has significant challenges, and although he was deprived of early intervention for autism because his disability was misdiagnosed as ADHD until he was in 8th grade, he also is an exceptionally good candidate for intervention and has shown remarkable motivation and progress when placed in the right environment. The experts proposed a detailed and specific plan that would provide Neli with intensive intervention in a safe, secure and closely supervised residential setting for an extended period of time.
The prosecution did not offer any testimony from witnesses and submitted only limited evidence aimed at showing that Neli had behaved badly in the past. One item of prosecution evidence was Neli’s special education file. Its thickness, the prosecutor argued, was proof that Neli had had all the services he needed and to no avail and that therefore this case was not about autism but simply about “a violent man” who should be incarcerated. The prosecutor stressed that this was “a case, not a cause” and that it was inappropriate for the defense to attempt to “medicalize” criminal behavior.”
One of the many emotional moments of the afternoon came at the end of the day when the judge, just prior to announcing his decision, asked Neli whether he wished to say anything. Neli stood and, with permission of the judge, turned to face the officer. In a voice barely audible he apologized. He spoke several sentences that were difficult to hear though their meaning was clear.
The judge found that the plan proposed by the defense experts – hospitalization for several months at a Virginia psychiatric facility followed by intensive services at the residential school – was clear, strong and realistic, but he declined to implement it immediately. He set aside the jury’s sentence of more than 10 years and imposed a two year period of incarceration, with the remaining eight years “suspended,” meaning they can be imposed if Neli does not cooperate with the terms of his probation (i.e. – participation in the treatment plan). Of the two years imposed, Neli has already served one year, and he will have about another 8 ½ months to serve when his credit for good behavior is factored in.
All considered, though we certainly would have preferred to see Neli transferred to the hospital after the hearing, this is an extraordinary outcome given the traditional sanctity of a jury verdict in Virginia. The defense team, which includes lawyers and experts who donated untold hours and resources on Neli’s behalf, will make every effort to use the next 8 ½ months constructively to help Neli make progress even before he leaves the jail for appropriate care.
The witnesses called by Neli’s defense team expressed compassion for the injured officer. The witnesses and defense counsel made it clear that what happened to the officer that day was not the officer’s fault. Everybody lost that day last May when the confrontation occurred. 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 and public safety. We have to show our disabled adults how to be interviewed and possibly arrested by the police. The legal system is not equipped to deal with individuals who 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.