Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, has granted a conditional pardon to a 22-year-old autistic man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for striking and severely injuring a New York couple in car accident.
According to NBC News, Matthew Rushin – in August 2019 – pleaded guilty for his involvement in the January 2019 incident that has left one of the victims, George Cusick, disabled.
After the young man’s conviction, his mother Lavern Rushin, launched a social media campaign calling for his release on the grounds that her son was innocent. She also launched an online petition appealing for his release as well as a GoFundMe to help raise funds for his legal fees. The petition garnered over 200,000 signatories, while the crowdfunding raised over $100,000.
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“Every day he lived behind bars, we lived behind bars,” Lavern told the news outlet. “We felt his every pain and despair — we wish we could take away the victims’ pain because we know he feels it every day.”
Though prosecutors argued the car collision was caused by Rushin in his attempt to commit suicide by driving on the opposite side of the road, the family’s lawyer, Miriam Airington-Fisher said it was “unintentional.” Airington-Fisher was not Rushin’s attorney during the initial proceedings.
Rushin’s mother also said her son suffered an autism-related seizure before the collision, and authorities did not make arrangements for a mental evaluation to be done on him before arresting and questioning him after the incident.
“If they had taken Matthew to the hospital, he probably would have been exonerated,” Lavern said.
In a statement responding to the pardon, the office of the State Attorney said: “Our hearts go out to the victims and their families in this case for the ongoing pain and legal process that they have to endure.
While it certainly is within the Governor’s authority to (grant a pardon), this office believes that the sentence imposed by the court was appropriate, just and fair.”
The statement added: “Governor Northam is not altering Mr. Rushin’s conviction in any way. Matthew Rushin remains convicted of the felonies to which he pled guilty.”
Per the conditions of the pardon, Rushin will not be cleared of the conviction, but he will be released “no earlier than Spring 2021”, NBC News reported. After his release, a designated Virginia Parole Board officer will monitor and oversee him under an approved home plan for five years.
He has also been ordered to see a mental health counselor as well as undergo substance abuse evaluations. Rushin has also been banned from ever driving again, and can neither own a firearm nor get in touch with the victims of the accident. Flouting any of these conditions in the next ten years will see him back behind bars to complete his sentence.
In a statement to ABC News after the pardon was granted, Cusick’s wife, Donna, said Rushin “should never drive again.”
“I wish him well and hope that he stays safe. However, the public needs to be kept safe also,” said Donna. “Now, George is a shell. He can breathe on his own and move his arms slightly but that is it. We don’t know if he knows us. He doesn’t respond to us. His smile is gone. George is gone and we miss him.”
Meanwhile, Lavern told ABC News that though the family is excited by the news, Rushin has a long road to recovery as he’s suffering from medical issues that have affected his vision in addition to other medical health care he’ll be needing after he’s released.
“Prison is not the cure for autism and anyone having a mental health crisis,” Lavern said. “There needs to be more reform and more training for those officers to handle crises like that, and even a separate entity … coming in and assisting those officers.”