WASHINGTON – As our country faces a critical reckoning of the systemic racism and racial injustice that have plagued our society and systems for generations, The Arc is seeking long overdue legal and moral justice for a young Black man with disabilities who has suffered irreparable harm.
Today, we call on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to #FreeNeli and immediately grant Reginald “Neli” Latson a full pardon. Latson is Black and has autism and intellectual disability, identities which have led to his continued persecution in the criminal justice system.
“At this critical turning point in history, we believe the Commonwealth of Virginia must do more to hold itself morally responsible and accountable in the case of Neli Latson and the continuing injustice of his prosecution and horrifying mistreatment in the criminal justice system. We urge Governor Northam to issue Mr. Latson a full pardon and an apology on behalf of the Commonwealth,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.
Sadly, Latson’s case represents the discrimination people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) experience in the criminal justice system and how that discrimination is compounded for Black people with I/DD. Latson’s nightmare began in 2010 when someone called police reporting a “suspicious” Black male possibly with a gun outside of a public library in Stafford County, Virginia, outside of Washington. Latson, at the time an 18-year-old special education student who had committed no crime and was not carrying a gun or weapon, was just waiting for the library to open. Latson was confronted by a Stafford County deputy, who quickly found that he was unarmed. Latson tried to walk away but was grabbed by the deputy several times. Latson reacted with a fight-or-flight response, a response even more common for people with autism, and in the resulting altercation, both Latson and the Deputy were hurt. Latson was later convicted of assaulting the deputy, setting in motion the next troubling decade of his young life.
While behind bars in Virginia, Latson was subjected to mistreatment and abuse for behaviors connected to his disability, including long periods of solitary confinement, Taser shocks, and the use of a full-body restraint chair for hours on end. Latson was granted a conditional pardon by then Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2015. It allowed him to move from prison to less restrictive facilities, but the conditions of that pardon, in effect until 2025, mean that Latson remains under supervision by criminal justice authorities and experiences the constant threat of reincarceration. Any misinterpreted behavior by Latson, who also now lives with mental health disabilities due to his traumatic experiences with law enforcement and correctional officers, could send the 28-year-old back to prison, resetting the cruel cycle.
It’s estimated that one third to half of all people in the U.S. killed by police have a disability – the majority of these are people of color.
As today’s national conversation intensifies over the clear need for criminal justice reform and an end to the murders of Black people at the hands of police, Neli Latson recently wrote to The Washington Post: “I hope there will finally be change and there will be equality for black people.” He also shared: “I understand how fortunate I am to be alive.”
Governor Northam has an opportunity to remove a major obstacle from Neli Latson’s path to healing. The Arc and The Arc of Virginia, alongside Latson’s attorneys, have been fighting for justice for Latson since 2011 and will not stop until he is free.
“Mr. Latson is a human being. He was criminalized for the color of his skin and his disability. He deserves justice. Governor Northam, #FreeNeli now,” said Berns.