VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday conditionally pardoned a Black man with autism whose conviction following a January 2019 car crash has caught the attention of disability advocates, the Black Lives Matter movement and a number of celebrities.
Matthew Rushin, 22, of Virginia Beach, is serving 10 years of a 50-year prison sentence for a multivehicle crash that severely disabled a New York man. Monday’s pardon paves the way for Rushin to be released early next year, the Virginian-Pilot reported.
Prison records show that Rushin, whose medical history includes autism spectrum disorder and a traumatic brain injury from a near-fatal 2017 crash, is currently being held in the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville. He pleaded guilty in August 2019 to two counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit-and-run with personal injury.
Rushin’s advocates say he entered the guilty plea, against his parents' advice, because he believed he would be allowed to go home. On the day he was sentenced in November 2019, he called his mother and asked her to order Thanksgiving dinner for him and the 11 other men on his cellblock, Lavern Rushin told The Washington Post earlier this year.
“After I got off the phone with him, I just said, ‘Oh my God, he doesn’t realize what just happened,’” she said.
Rushin’s cause has been picked up by the Black Lives Matter movement. A Change.org petition seeking Rushin’s freedom had garnered nearly 250,000 signatures as of noon Tuesday.
Advocates for those with autism have become involved in his case, and music industry executive, podcaster and philanthropist Jason Flom and other celebrities such as author John Grisham and actor Jamie Lee Curtis have spoken out on his behalf, the Virginian-Pilot reported.
The pardon does not wipe Rushin’s slate clean. He will be on supervised probation for five years.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, told the Virginian-Pilot that Rushin must also get mental health treatment and counseling, as well as a substance abuse evaluation. He will be prohibited from possessing a firearm or driving a car but could petition to regain his driving privileges in 10 years, Yarmosky said.
If he violates any of the conditions of his release, he could be required to serve out his sentence.
Rushin’s defense attorney, Miriam Airington-Fisher, told the newspaper her client was “shocked and just extremely, extremely, extremely grateful” when she told him about the pardon.
“He’s been overwhelmed by all the support he’s gotten,” Airington-Fisher said.
In a written statement shared on Facebook by Rushin’s mother, the family and his defense team thanked Northam’s office, as well as the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the state probation and parole office “for their conscientious attention to this case and for balancing justice and fairness in approving Matthew’s pardon.”
“We know Matthew’s case received a full and thorough review and we extend our heartfelt gratitude to everyone who reviewed this case, and everyone who advocated for Matthew,” the statement read.
Rushin has been behind bars since the Jan. 4, 2019, crash, which occurred when he went to pick up some pastries at a Panera Bread restaurant where he worked part-time. Rushin was a mechanical engineering student at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
As he pulled into the parking lot, he struck another vehicle with his Chevrolet Tahoe. According to prosecutors, he fled the parking lot at a high rate of speed.
“Just moments later, Rushin was driving recklessly on First Colonial Road, passing traffic and speeding,” Colin Stolle, the commonwealth’s attorney for the city of Virginia Beach, said in a 2019 news release. “When he reached a median break, he drove straight into oncoming traffic and stuck another vehicle head-on. It was occupied by a husband and wife who were visiting Virginia Beach from New York.”
His Tahoe then struck another vehicle carrying a second couple, who were not seriously injured. The couple from New York, George and Danna Cusick, were seriously injured.
George Cusick was left permanently disabled, unable to speak, feed himself or walk. He remains in a nursing facility, the Virginian-Pilot reported.
“George is still in bad shape. He will always be in bad shape, and our hearts will forever be broken,” Danna Cusick told the newspaper after learning of Rushin’s pardon.
Witnesses at the scene of the crash told police that Rushin got out of his vehicle and said he’d been trying to kill himself, authorities said. According to prosecutors, he repeated that statement to responding officers.
Rushin’s advocates, including his parents, are adamant that the crash was an accident that took place as he attempted to make a U-turn and go back to the parking lot where he’d clipped the first car. The Post reported that Lavern Rushin said her son only mentioned wanting to die after a man involved in the multicar crash yelled at him and asked if he was trying to kill himself.
He said what he thought the man wanted to hear, Lavern Rushin claims.
Video of Rushin’s interrogation by detectives that night shows that he denied trying to hurt himself or anyone else.
His supporters say that Rushin panicked after the fender bender near Panera Bread.
“At this point Matthew’s anxiety level began to elevate stemming from PTSD and (traumatic brain injury) caused by a previous accident in 2017,” his mother told Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Matthew then left the parking (lot), 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, nonfatal accident.”
The Post reported that experts hired by the defense after Rushin’s sentencing found that the evidence did not support the theory that he purposely drove into traffic.
“On the contrary, the evidence presented strongly suggests pedal misapplication as the primary collision factor,” reads the letter, which the Post reported was included in the pardon package to the governor. “Pedal misapplication is a common cause of crash collisions among those age 16-20 and those with poor executive function, as is common in autism and ADHD.”
Rushin was initially charged with attempted murder. His charges were later upgraded to malicious wounding and, despite state sentencing guidelines that suggest a sentence of six years, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
The judge suspended 40 years of his sentence.
Rushin’s advocates have questioned whether his race played a part in the sentencing.
Stolle released a statement about Rushin’s conditional pardon on Monday.
“Our hearts go out to the victims and their families in this case for the ongoing pain and legal process that they have had to endure,” Stolle said, according to the Virginian-Pilot. “While it certainly is within the governor’s authority to (pardon Rushin), this office believes that the sentence imposed by the court was appropriate, just and fair.”
The newspaper reported that Danna Cusick was unhappy about the governor’s decision, which she said should not be considered a pardon.
“It’s a reduction of sentence, that’s it,” Cusick told the paper. “He’s still a felon, he still has conditions he has to follow, he still can’t drive. This is no get out of jail free card.”
Cox Media Group