Overview: In 2010, Mr. Latson was an 18-year-old with autism and intellectual disability, 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. Mr. Latson had committed no crime and was not armed. The resulting confrontation with a deputy resulted in injury to an officer when Mr. Latson understandably resisted being manhandled and physically restrained. This was the beginning of years of horrific abuse in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors refused to consider Mr. 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, Mr. Latson was convicted, sentenced to ten years in 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.
Virginia and national disability advocates, including The Arc urged then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to pardon Mr. Latson. In 2015, with bipartisan support from state legislators, Governor McAuliffe granted a conditional pardon. Although this released Mr. Latson from prison, it required him to live in a restrictive residential setting and remain subject to criminal justice system supervision for ten years. The terms of the 2015 conditional pardon meant Mr. Latson could be sent back to jail at any time, causing constant anxiety.
The Arc and other advocates continued to push for a full pardon which was finally granted by Governor Ralph Northam in 2021. The full pardon from Governor Northam recognizes Mr. Latson’s success since 2015 and relieves him from that ongoing threat. Mr. Latson now has the chance to live a satisfying and self-directed life in the community, free from burdensome, unfair restrictions and the constant threat of reincarceration, but unfortunately never free from the painful truth that Black people with disabilities live at a dangerous intersection of racial injustice and disability discrimination. Mr. Latson’s case galvanized disability rights activists, bringing national attention to overly aggressive and sometimes deadly policing, prosecution and sentencing practices and the horrifying mistreatment of people with disabilities in jails and prisons.
Dallas Morning News: The U.S. justice system has an autism problem
Washington Post: In Va. assault case, anxious parents recognize ‘dark side of autism’
Washington Post: Ruth Marcus: In Virginia, a cruel and unusual punishment for autism