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Immediate Release Sought For Wrongfully Imprisoned Autistic Youth
A Voice for Neli – a grassroots advocacy group formed to bring awareness to the plight of Reginald “Neli” Latson, an autistic teen the group contends was wrongly convicted and sentenced to serve time in a state penitentiary
By: Sharon Lawrence
Latson began his day May 24, 2010 sitting on the grass outside a local library in Stafford, Virginia. Unbeknownst to Neli, while he waited for the library to open, he was also being reported to the police by a nearby school crossing guard as “a suspicious Black male who may have a gun.” Weary of waiting, Neli left the library and was subsequently approached by a school resources officer, Deputy Thomas Calverly, who searched the teen for a gun and having found none, asked Neli for his name. Having voluntarily submitted to the search and perceiving that he may be being harassed, Neli refused and attempted to walk away, saying he had committed no crime. Calverly then grabbed Neli from behind and attempted to arrest him without reading him his Miranda rights or calling for back up. Neli resisted and both he and the officer were injured in the scuffle.
After a three-day trial, Neli was found guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer, among other charges, and the jury recommended that he serve 10 1⁄2 years in prison. At the heart of Neli’s defense was the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.
The case has raised concerns about how law enforcement deals with the developmentally and mentally disabled. A Voice for Neli contends that Latson had committed no crime when he was accosted, searched, and detained by Deputy Calverly, and that he should have been free to go once the officer determined that he did not possess a gun.
Following his arrest, Neli was held without bail in isolation for 11 days at the Rappahannock Regional Jail. Police allowed Neli’s school counselor to visit and she relayed messages and information to Lisa Alexander, Neli’s mother, who was allowed only one visit during that period. According to Alexander, Neli was unable to speak or communicate with her during their brief time together. “He appeared to be in a catatonic state. It was awful,” Alexander says.
As Neli’s time in isolation dragged on, police interrogators found him nonresponsive and disturbed and a judge ordered that he be transferred to a state mental hospital for 30 days of treatment and evaluation. He was later returned to jail for one year and spent eight months of that time in tortuous isolation. Doctors and those who are close to Neli say he is no longer the same young man. He is depressed and deteriorating, continuing to lose the functioning he had before the incident with Deputy Calverly. According to those doctors, Neli is in desperate need of a therapeutic facility, not another of year of suffering in a state penitentiary that houses hardened criminals.
At Neli’s sentencing hearing, Judge Charles Sharp opted to lengthen his incarceration, in spite of overwhelming evidence that Neli’s Asperger’s and poor police training contributed significantly to the events of May 24, 2010. Neli’s attorneys had presented to the judge a comprehensive fully-funded treatment plan that Neli would have been able to take advantage of immediately following the hearing. However, that treatment will now be postponed while he serves his sentence.
A Voice for Neli argues that even if Neli Latson were not autistic, his arrest on May 24, 2010 was unlawful and he never should have been jailed. According to Alexander and fellow autism advocates, it is unconscionable to treat those who are autistic and vulnerable the way Neli has been treated by the Stafford, Virginia criminal justice system. Alexander is urging Gov. McDonnell to respond to the group’s concerns by ordering the release of her son from prison immediately.
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