“If anyone thought I was not going to voice my opinion and that I was just going to let my son become a statistic, they had the wrong mom,” says Lavern Rushin. “They had the wrong mom.” Lavern is the mother of Matthew Rushin, the 22-year-old Virginian who now sits in state prison serving 10 years for a non-fatal car collision. UPDATE: Virginia’s governor pardoned Matthew in November of 2020.
As a child, Matthew was diagnosed with ADHD and autism, and early in life he experienced a traumatic brain injury. But he did well in school and has always connected deeply with others. He is known as a sweet, generous, artistic, and loving person. He graduated high school with honors and went to Old Dominion University to study mechanical engineering. At some point, he told Lavern he wanted to double major so he could be a teacher.
It all changed one day in January 2019. As Lavern explains it: “In the Panera parking lot, a car ran a stop sign and hit Matthew’s vehicle. Matthew looked at the man, trying to signal him for them to get out of the intersection. At this point Matthew’s anxiety level began to elevate stemming from PTSD and TBI caused by a previous accident in 2017. Matthew then left the parking, trying to calm down by doing his breathing exercise that he learned through therapy. Matthew then made an abrupt u-turn, and at this point he lost consciousness due to a seizure, which caused a second, non-fatal accident.”
What ensued at the scene and after has been the subject of intense debate. Much of the contention has centered around Matthew’s intentions, his disability and the police’s response to it, and if his race played a part in how he was treated.
Against the advice of his parents, Matthew signed a plea agreement because he thought it meant he could go home. Instead he was shunted through a system that seemed to show neither mercy nor understanding of his autism. Virginia’s guidelines call for a maximum of six years and four months, but Matthew was given a 50-year sentence, 40 of which the judge suspended.
“Each day Matthew is behind bars, we’re behind bars.”
And then, says Lavern, “Everything really fell apart. Each day Matthew is behind bars, we’re behind bars. It’s been a difficult time for all of us and our family and friends who love Matthew. We’re all devastated.” For Matthew, it’s been horrible. He’s been attacked several times, and his health has been deteriorating, marked by frequent vision loss and severe headaches. Treatment in prison is non-existent.
“The worry and pain is a constant, every day since his sentencing,” says Lavern.
But early on, Lavern made up her mind to match her pain with fierce advocacy. She goes to rallies, pesters lawmakers, sends letters, talks to media, makes phone calls – whatever it takes. That includes working with other groups to bring attention to her son’s plight. “We’re doing what we can to advocate with alliances that support us, from our local community to national groups. Especially we’re listening to the autistic community because they absolutely understand the breakdown of their community by the criminal justice system.
“My fight does not stop with Matthew. I will continue to advocate for those without voices, I will continue to fight for those that these injustices have actually taken over their lives, have destroyed their lives. I can’t even imagine how many innocent people are in the prison system, it’s just terrible. I’m telling you, my advocacy does not stop with Matthew.”
Does Matthew’s story make you feel like the criminal justice system is especially hard on people with disabilities? Join FAMM and help us make a difference, just like Lavern Rushin.
Name: Matthew Rushin
Sentence: 50 years originally, suspended to 10
Offense: Two counts of malicious wounding; one count of hit and run
Year sentenced: 2019
Age at sentencing: 20 years
Projected release date: Not available