Pardon wrongfully convicted autistic youth Neli Latson

Reginald “Neli” Latson is a 19-year-old autistic young man, who on the morning of May 24, 2010, sat on the grass outside the local library in Stafford, Va., and waited for it to open. Police allege that it was reported that there was a suspicious Black male who had a gun. Deputy Calverley then approached Latson and searched him for a gun. No gun was found. Calverly asked Latson for his name, and Latson refused and tried to walk away as he had committed no crime. Calverly then grabbed Latson and attempted to arrest him without reading him his Miranda Rights or calling for backup.

After a three-day trial, Latson was found guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer, among other charges, and 10 1/2 years in prison were recommended. Latson’s defense centered around the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, part of the autism spectrum, a condition caused by an abnormality of the brain.

This case has raised concerns about how law enforcement deals with the developmentally or mentally disabled. Latson had done nothing wrong and was completely within his rights to sit on the grass until the library opened, but was accosted by an officer who then proceeded to question, detain and arrest him, even after confirming he did not have a gun. Once it was established that he did not have a gun, Neli Latson should have been left alone.

For the next 11 days, Neli was held without bail and in isolation at the Rappahannock Regional Jail. Police allowed Neli’s school counselor to visit, and she relayed messages and information to Lisa, Neli’s mother, who was allowed only one visit. “He wasn’t able to speak or communicate with me. He appeared to be in a catatonic state,” Lisa says.

Latson had done nothing wrong and was completely within his rights to sit on the grass until the library opened, but was accosted by an officer who then proceeded to question, detain and arrest him.

As Neli’s time in isolation dragged on, police interrogators found him non-responsive and disturbed and a judge ordered the young man transferred to a state mental institution for 30 days of treatment and evaluation. He was returned to jail for one year and spent eight months of that year in tortuous isolation.

Neli is no longer the same boy and is depressed and deteriorating, losing what functioning he had, and badly in need of a therapeutic facility, not another year of prison.

How to learn more and get involved

For more information, visit http://avoiceforneli.com and subscribe to the listserve for action alerts by sending an e-mail to avoiceforneli-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Most importantly, Neli was recently moved to the penitentiary and we must fight for his release! To make your voice heard, sign the following petition and ask everyone you know to do the same. To sign, go to http://www.change.org/petitions/pardon-wrongfully-convicted-autistic-youth-neli-latson.

Petition to free Neli

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, are calling for Gov. Bob McDonnell to pardon Reginald “Neli” Latson, a wrongfully convicted, autistic young man. Neli is not a criminal and was imprisoned in May 2010 because he did not understand an officer’s instructions due to his disability, leading to an altercation during which he instinctively defended himself. Neli was guilty of no crime and should never been imprisoned. He has spent one terrifying year in prison and his condition degrades by the day. He has been in solitary confinement for eight months and is bullied by inmates and Cos (correctional officers). The Virginia State Supreme Court ruled that it is not illegal to not give your name to a police officer and if you are unlawfully being placed under arrest, you have the right to resist.

After a three-day trial Neli Latson was found guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer, among other charges, and 10 1/2 years in prison were recommended. On May 31, 2011, the Stafford County judge modified and pronounced that Neli Latson, with credit for time served and a possible reduction for good behavior, will serve approximately nine more months in jail and then on to treatment recommended by the defense. This is despite the presence of several special needs experts – teachers from his school and his coach – all who verified his autistic condition and had very meticulously prepared a therapeutic plan for him to leave prison and enter treatment that day, followed by a return to school. When his coach was asked if he still would be willing to work with Neli after all that has transpired, his response was an enthusiastic, “Yes.”

Neli Latson must be admitted into a treatment facility right away where he can finally receive the support he so desperately needs as his incarceration is an extreme detriment to his functionality and is not benefitting him or society in any way. Serving an additional year in prison can only harm Neli as he has been treated unjustly with no care or regard for his autistic condition. The state of Virginia has completely abdicated all responsibility for protecting this young citizen from harm in its zeal to lock him up and criminalize him.

This case is being observed worldwide and we are shocked and appalled at the treatment of one of the most vulnerable of our population, this disabled young man, and very strongly protest his continued incarceration.

WE URGE THAT YOU PARDON NELI LATSON so that the treatment plan presented for Neli in court on May 31 may be implemented immediately and not after one more tortuous year of deterioration in Neli’s capabilities with potentially devastating consequences to his mental health. This young man is now in a Virginia state penitentiary.