Matthew Rushin, a young, Black, autistic man who was wrongfully convicted after a 2019 car accident, has been released from prison. After he was conditionally pardoned by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in November 2020, Matthew remained in prison, contracting COVID-19 while behind bars. On Monday, March 29th, after a long and nightmarish ordeal, he finally walked free.
Lavern and Demetrius Rushin had worked tirelessly to free their son, who was 21 at the time of his arrest. Matthew, who was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s as a child and later suffered a traumatic brain injury, was a student at Old Dominion University — a young man who loved to compose poetry and play the piano. On the rainy night of January 4, 2019, he went to pick up pastries at the Panera where he worked when he was involved in a serious car accident.
After the accident, the commonwealth’s attorney for Virginia Beach issued a news release that read, in part: “Had this case gone to trial, the commonwealth’s evidence would have proven that on January 4, 2019, Matthew Rushin struck another moving vehicle in a parking lot . . . did not stop, and instead fled the parking lot. Just moments later, Rushin was driving recklessly on First Colonial Road, passing traffic and speeding. When he reached a median break, he drove straight into oncoming traffic and [struck] another vehicle head-on. It was occupied by a husband and wife who were visiting Virginia Beach from New York.”
Matthew’s parents — as well as experts and criminal justice advocates who have stepped up to support him — disagreed with this version of events, saying that Matthew clipped a car in the parking lot and initially panicked and drove off. He was in the process of making a U-turn to return to the scene when the crash occurred.
Terra Vance, an autistic woman and psychology consultant, has examined the details of the case. She points to pedal misapplication, a common cause of crash collisions among those with poor executive function (a common factor in autism and ADHD), as the cause of the crash.
Against his parent’s wishes, Matthew’s legal counsel coerced him into a plea agreement, which he signed believing it would allow him to come home. He was instead ordered to serve 10 years of a 50-year sentence.
Matthew’s freedom is being celebrated by the family, friends, and supporters who fought for him, including author John Grisham, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, Beyonce’s mother — Tina Knowles Lawson — and music executive and criminal justice advocate Jason Flom.