Washington, DC – Neli Latson’s story of unjust prosecution and abuse in the criminal legal system was heard at the White House today, bringing attention to the need for better treatment of people with disabilities in interactions with law enforcement.
Latson was invited to speak with high level government officials during a Black History Month event with other young advocates on a variety of social justice issues.
“Being at the White House today was not only an honor, it was a dream come true. For years, when I was locked up in solitary confinement, I daydreamed about getting out and telling my story. I wanted to stand up and speak out so that other autistic people, and other Black people, and other Black and autistic people, would not experience the terrible things that happened to me,” said Latson.
In 2010, Latson was an 18-year-old high school student, waiting outside his neighborhood library in Stafford County, Virginia for it to open. Someone called the police reporting a “suspicious” Black male, possibly with a gun. Latson, who has autism and intellectual disability, had committed no crime and was not armed. The resulting confrontation with a deputy who came to investigate resulted in injury to the officer when Latson, whose autism is accompanied by tactile sensitivity, resisted being manhandled and physically restrained. This was the beginning of years of horrific abuse in the criminal legal system. Prosecutors refused to consider Latson’s disabilities, calling it a diagnosis of convenience and using “the R-word,” and rejected an offer of disability services as an alternative to incarceration. Instead, Latson was convicted, sentenced to prison and punished with long periods of solitary confinement, Taser shocks, and the use of a full-body restraint chair for hours on end for behaviors related to his disabilities.
The Arc of Virginia and national disability advocates, including The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, urged then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to pardon Latson. In 2015, he was granted a conditional pardon. Although this released Latson from prison, it required him to live in a restrictive residential setting and remain subject to criminal legal system supervision for ten years. The terms meant Latson could be sent back to jail at any time, causing constant anxiety.
Finally, in 2021, then-Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted Latson a full pardon, giving him his freedom. Since this development, Latson now lives in his own apartment and receives community-based supports.
“It’s gratifying to have the White House acknowledge the importance of Neli’s advocacy for a society that treats all people with disabilities, particularly Black people, with dignity and respect. The painful truth is that Black people with disabilities live at a dangerous intersection of racial injustice and disability discrimination, and Neli’s life was forever altered by his experience,” said Tonya Milling, Executive Director of The Arc of Virginia, who attended the event with Latson.
“This case galvanized disability rights activists, bringing national attention to overly aggressive and sometimes deadly policing, prosecution and sentencing practices and to the horrifying mistreatment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in jails and prisons. Neli’s advocacy is a testament to his strength and desire to make sure no one is treated like he was in that moment that forever changed his life,” said Leigh Ann Davis, Senior Director, The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.
“I still have a lot of trauma to overcome. I am fearful and it’s hard for me to do a lot of things. At the same time, I am happy that the activism and publicity about my case not only helped me, but also helped to make change for others,” concluded Latson.