A Black man with autism was granted a conditional pardon by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday after he was sentenced to a decade in prison for his involvement in a nonfatal car crash.
Matthew Rushin, 22, of Virginia Beach, was sentenced to 10 years after pleading guilty with no trial in August 2019 for a car crash that severely injured a couple from New York, said Miriam Airington-Fisher, Rushin’s lawyer.
George Cusick, who was injured along with his wife, Danna Cusick, was disabled by the January 2019 incident, according to Airington-Fisher.
The conditional pardon comes after nearly a two-year social media campaign led by Rushin’s mother, Lavern Rushin, who maintained his innocence and advocated for his release.
“Every day he lived behind bars, we lived behind bars,” Lavern Rushin told NBC News. “We felt his every pain and despair — we wish we could take away the victims’ pain because we know he feels it every day.”
Airington-Fisher, who was not the family’s lawyer at the time of the proceedings, said Rushin’s defense attorney argued that the car collision was “unintentional,” but prosecutors argued that Rushin attempted death by suicide by driving into incoming traffic
Lavern said he had a seizure related to his autism at the time of the incident and that he was never medically evaluated for mental illness before police arrested and interrogated him.
“If they had taken Matthew to the hospital, he probably would have been exonerated,” she said.
The Virginia Beach Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
“Our hearts go out to the victims and their families in this case for the ongoing pain and legal process that they have to endure,” the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office said in a statement. “While it certainly is within the Governor’s authority to (grant a pardon), this office believes that the sentence imposed by the court was appropriate, just and fair.”
“Governor Northam is not altering Mr. Rushin’s conviction in any way. Matthew Rushin remains convicted of the felonies to which he pled guilty,” the attorney’s office said.
After Rushin’s imprisonment, Lavern Rushin took to social media to raise awareness of her son’s arrest and sentencing.
She launched a GoFundMe page that raised more than $115,000 in legal fees in his defense and an online petition that collected nearly 250,000 signatures seeking the release of her son.
She said his early release would not have been possible without the “overwhelming support” from the disability community, as well as celebrities like Beyonce’s mom, Tina Lawson, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, NBA star Dominique Wilkins and music executive Jason Flom.
Lavern Rushin said Northam granted a conditional and partial pardon five months after she filed her petition in June.
Under the governor’s directive, Rushin’s conviction will not be expunged, but he will be released “no earlier than Spring 2021” under an approved home plan with an assigned Virginia Parole Board officer for five years, the governor’s office said.
Rushin is required to participate in mental health and counseling services, in addition to substance abuse evaluations, according to the governor’s office. He is also prohibited from driving for the rest of his life, and he is not permitted to own a firearm or make contact with the victims of the car crash.
Violating the conditions within the next decade will place Rushin back into prison to complete the remainder of his original sentence.
The Cusicks could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday, but Danna Cusick told ABC News in a statement that Rushin “should never drive again.”
“I wish him well and hope that he stays safe. However, the public needs to be kept safe also,” she said. “Now, George is a shell. He can breathe on his own and move his arms slightly but that is it. We don’t know if he knows us. He doesn’t respond to us. His smile is gone. George is gone and we miss him.”
While Lavern Rushin was excited to hear the news of her son’s release, she said many challenges still lie ahead, including medical issues related to his vision and coping with the trauma inflicted on the victims’ families.
She added that Rushin represents just one of many cases in which people with disabilities are wrongfully convicted.
“My hope is that we continue to look at the criminal justice system and change it, not only for my son, but for the hundreds of Matthew’s out there — people with autism or people with other physical and mental disabilities in prison,” she said.
“We need a system that provides better support for people with mental disabilities, particularly with their interactions with police officers.”