Free Matthew Rushin (Autistic College Student @ ODU)
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On January 1, 2019, Matthew Rushin was a Black, autistic mechanical engineering student at Old Dominion University. He had a job where he was earning money, he had a girlfriend, he had friends, and he spent his spare time writing poetry, photographing nature, composing music, spending time with family, and volunteering with local charities, especially those who served the indigent (homeless) population.
On January 4, 2019, Matthew was heading to his job at Panera Bread to get some pastries and meet his new girlfriend as she got off her shift. As he pulled into the shopping center plaza, a man leaving the liquor store failed to remain stopped at a stop sign and grazed Matthew’s SUV. This accident was minor and common for that entrance. Matthew tried to get the man to move out of the intersection, but he remained there, illegally, making calls on his cell phone.
Matthew maneuvered around the parking lot, trying to prompt the man to pull off to the side. When the man wouldn’t move, Matthew felt overwhelmed by a panic that was unlike him. He started crying uncontrollably, trying to practice breathing exercises to get his emotions under control. This kind of emotional response was not typical for Matthew, and he was having a hard time understanding what happened to him.
After driving approximately two blocks, Matthew realized that he needed to return to the scene, even if it wasn’t his fault. He made a U-turn, and at that point lost consciousness. Matthew would describe over and over to detectives that he ended up in oncoming traffic and only remembered the LED lights of a vehicle he struck, but he did not realize he had traveled approximately a quarter of a mile between the U-turn and being in oncoming traffic.
A few hours later, he would be charged with attempted murder.
After the collision, Matthew reported that he “came to.” He screamed and asked for someone with a knife to cut him out of his vehicle (the airbags had deployed). Eventually, he climbed out the back of his SUV (the doors would not open), having lost his shoes along the way. It was raining and frigid, he was confused, and he was trying to understand what happened. Immediately, he was grabbed by a bystander who restrained him.
Another man, seeing a young Black male and an older white man, assumed that an altercation was taking place and came to assist by also restraining Matthew. As he’s standing there, being restrained by two strangers, barefoot, addled, confused, and bleeding from the head, one of the people involved in the crash approached Matthew, yelling, “What the fuck were you trying to do? Kill yourself?”
Witness testimony on what Matthew said following this confrontation was inconsistent. The man himself said that Matthew responded, “I want to die.” The police reported that Matthew said he wanted to kill himself. Matthew could not remember what he said.
When an autistic repeats something someone says, it is known as echolalia. It’s repeating things (like an echo) to help process them. Echolalia is especially common when an autistic person is in a state of overwhelm.
This response was the primary evidence used to charge Matthew Rushin with attempted murder. Later, this charge would be elevated to 2 counts of aggravated malicious wounding, a class 2 felony equivalent to first degree murder.
Despite reporting loss of consciousness and disclosing his autism and ADHD diagnoses, Matthew was not transported for medical attention or evaluated. He was denied bond and access to medical appointments from the accident until after sentencing, despite having a cyst on his brain which requires annual MRI visits.
Matthew had a blood alcohol level of 0.00. He had no drugs or alcohol in his system. He was interrogated for hours and hours, and his story remained that he did not intentionally drive into traffic, but his loss of consciousness was painted as a suicide attempt.
Matthew's diagnoses: Autism, ADHD, Anxiety Disorder, PTSD (from a Jan. 6, 2017 single car accident in snowstorm which left him with a serious brain injury and other physical injuries), traumatic brain injury, and a Rathke’s Cleft cyst on his brain. Following the accident in 2017, Matthew had seizures believed due to the traumatic brain injury; however, a seizure may have caused the accident.
At the time of the accident that led to his convictions, Matthew was still battling the effects of his TBI, and to this day the side effects continue to worsen.
Despite the well recorded physical and mental health history, his trial counsel failed to adequately advise Matthew and address that medical issues or Matthew’s neurodevelopmental diagnoses (autism and ADHD) could have contributed to the accident. She provided ineffective assistance of counsel by pressuring Matthew into pleading guilty to the charges despite his parents’ ardent protests to the “deal.” Matthew’s attorney went to the jail where he had been detained since the accident and advised him that if he signed it, he had a 50/50 chance of going home; otherwise, he was going to be in prison for the rest of his life.
Matthew believed that signing the plea deal meant that he was agreeing to lesser charges, not admitting to guilt. The lesser charges, however, still carried a maximum potential sentence of 50 years. The original charge of attempted 2nd degree murder had a max of 10 years. Before the plea deal, charges of aggravated malicious wounding (with a 20 year mandatory minimum each and a max of life in prison) had been added along with a felony hit and run with injury, a charge that would not even have been legally applicable to the events which transpired. In Virginia, a person involved in a hit-and-run has 24 hours to report the incident. Matthew was returning within two minutes of leaving the parking lot. There were no injuries in that collision, caused by “a moving vehicle” at a stop sign. That charge was an additional ten years on Matthew’s sentence.
When Matthew climbed out of the back of his vehicle (all the air backs had deployed, so he had to exit the back). He was in a state of high distress which witnesses described as: agitated, a little in hysterics, distraught, he didn't seem like he was all there, he wasn't really answering very well, his speech was a little slurred, disturbed-like mentally at that moment, like maybe shock, he wasn't receiving what the police officer was telling him, he was moving his head around a lot, flailing his arms quite a bit, wasn't receiving information (from bystander holding him and telling him to calm down and suggesting he lay down), it's like he didn't hear me, impression that even when the officer came up he was not understanding what was being communicated to him by witness or officer.
His neurodivergence (autism and ADHD) and other relevant diagnoses (PTSD, Traumatic brain injury, anxiety) were not considered when interpreting his responses or his actions. Instead they exploited his vulnerabilities as they questioned him for hours.
A forensic crash reconstruction physicist examined all of the evidence related to the crash and stated with confidence that there was no indication of a purposeful suicide attempt and that crash data recovered from the vehicle’s “black box” was consistent with pedal misapplication. He offered forensic analysis to demonstrate that the collision was in no way consistent with a suicide attempt.
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