Home > Family Services, Government Relations > Post Sentencing of Reginald “Neli” Latson

Post Sentencing of Reginald “Neli” Latson

Teresa Champion is an attorney admitted to the bar in Kentucky and Washington State. She has two children; Sydney and James, who has a diagnosis of autism.  She is a long time civic and community activist, who works with the Fairfax Autism Network (FAN) and the Virginia Ability Alliance (VAA). Champion is a member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA).  Currently, Teresa is volunteering for the Virginia Autism Project (VAP) as the Northern Virginia Regional Director.

The preliminary blog, ‘The Latson Case in Virginia: A Danger Signal That We Can’t Ignore’ can be read here.

Reginald “Neli” Latson’s sentencing hearing took place in Stafford County, Virginia Circuit Court on Tuesday May 31st.  In March, Neli was found guilty of charges associated with an assault of a police officer and the jury recommended a sentence of 10 ½ years. In Virginia, the jury recommends a sentence and the judge imposes the sentence at a later date. Virginia law has no provision for parole. Neli will serve his entire sentence.

The courtroom was packed with people who came to show support for Neli and for a sentence that would both protect the community while providing desperately needed services for Neli. There were no seats to be had and a number of people stood throughout the long afternoon. A number of members of the Stafford community who know Neli were present, including the owner of the car wash where Neli worked through his vocational program, as well as family friends and neighbors. Also present were many parents of children with autism, representatives from the Arc of Northern Virginia, the Autism Society of Northern Virginia, and Autism Speaks. There were also several adults with autism in the courtroom who had traveled to Stafford to demonstrate their support.

Five witnesses testified for the defense: two experts who had evaluated Neli — a psychiatrist and a pediatric neuropsychologist who both specialize in autism spectrum disorders; the vice president of the residential school that is part of the proposed treatment plan; and two individuals from the community who had very close relationships with Neli: a school social worker who worked with him between 9th and 12thgrade, and Neli’s middle school wrestling coach. They all gave powerful and informative testimony. The testimony established that Neli has a diagnosis of autism and intellectual disability and that these conditions explain why he behaved as he did in the encounter with the police officer. The testimony further established that while Neli has significant challenges, and although he was deprived of early intervention for autism because his disability was misdiagnosed as ADHD until he was in 8th grade, he also is an exceptionally good candidate for intervention and has shown remarkable motivation and progress when placed in the right environment. The experts proposed a detailed and specific plan that would provide Neli with intensive intervention in a safe, secure and closely supervised residential setting for an extended period of time.

The prosecution did not offer any testimony from witnesses and submitted only limited evidence aimed at showing that Neli had behaved badly in the past. One item of prosecution evidence was Neli’s special education file. Its thickness, the prosecutor argued, was proof that Neli had had all the services he needed and to no avail and that therefore this case was not about autism but simply about “a violent man” who should be incarcerated. The prosecutor stressed that this was “a case, not a cause” and that it was inappropriate for the defense to attempt to “medicalize” criminal behavior.”

One of the many emotional moments of the afternoon came at the end of the day when the judge, just prior to announcing his decision, asked Neli whether he wished to say anything. Neli stood and, with permission of the judge, turned to face the officer. In a voice barely audible he apologized. He spoke several sentences that were difficult to hear though their meaning was clear.

The judge found that the plan proposed by the defense experts – hospitalization for several months at a Virginia psychiatric facility followed by intensive services at the residential school – was clear, strong and realistic, but he declined to implement it immediately. He set aside the jury’s sentence of more than 10 years and imposed a two year period of incarceration, with the remaining eight years “suspended,” meaning they can be imposed if Neli does not cooperate with the terms of his probation (i.e. – participation in the treatment plan). Of the two years imposed, Neli has already served one year, and he will have about another 8 ½ months to serve when his credit for good behavior is factored in.

All considered, though we certainly would have preferred to see Neli transferred to the hospital after the hearing, this is an extraordinary outcome given the traditional sanctity of a jury verdict in Virginia. The defense team, which includes lawyers and experts who donated untold hours and resources on Neli’s behalf, will make every effort to use the next 8 ½ months constructively to help Neli make progress even before he leaves the jail for appropriate care.

The witnesses called by Neli’s defense team expressed compassion for the injured officer.  The witnesses and defense counsel made it clear that what happened to the officer that day was not the officer’s fault.  Everybody lost that day last May when the confrontation occurred.  As this population with an ASD ages and those individuals, like Neli, who didn’t have access to adequate treatment and therapy become adults, we must explain autism to the community at large – just like we had to do for our children’s teachers, caregivers, and family members when they were younger. We worked for acceptance and training everywhere they went.

We have to be one step ahead of our adults with an ASD in the community.  We must talk honestly about the hallmarks of someone with an ASD and also educate our young adults on how to interact with someone in law enforcement and public safety. We have to show our disabled adults how to be interviewed and possibly arrested by the police.  The legal system is not equipped to deal with individuals who can’t respond appropriately and/or control their response because of a disability. We have a lot of work to do to educate and train the judicial and legal systems and the community at large.

  1. Ronny L. Jernigan DC#914965
    June 8, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Welcome to my world…my days begin at 5:30 a.m. and they end at 11:00 p.m., between this 17 ½ hour periods I am confronted with many continuous uncertainties, although there are some certainties of routine.

    Every morning I wake up with many faces never changing. Some are expressionless and those who display some form of expression may do so with a weary smile one minute but may desire to hurt you the next.

    Then there are the rules by which I am to adhere to, which when they become understood becomes routine for me. Many times these rules change because of those who have authority over me. For some reason, I understand – feel that because they have the authority -they can change the “written rules” at liberty by way of a “verbal order” (which if not followed will cause other adverse consequences when you do not do as they say). When this occurs a part of me desires to respectfully respond but do to the lacking ability and fear of feeling that if I try to express my self, I be misunderstood, I therefore melt-down and withdraw.

    Then there are those again whom I wake up with which there is absolutely, the majority of the time, no personal interaction with because of fear of misunderstanding because of me possibly invading their personal space; therefore again, I remain withdrawn and remain totally deep within my own world/space.

    My interactions and communications with everyone are very limited. Yes there are times when, I have no other choice but to communicate or respond to others for example when someone may ask me for something as simple as a cup of coffee or something to eat even if it may be my last, I am not able to say “no”. I feel compelled to give it to them for whatever reason, although on the inside I am screaming “no”.

    I feel as though I am this little minute white speck in the dead center of this massive black square with continuous static noise like un-tuned radio frequency. I remain day in and day out within my assigned area – on my bunk, feeling totally indifferent from those around me while staring out into outer nothingness.

    Welcome to my world….allow me to introduce my self. I AM Autism, Dementia and PTSD – my name is Ronny Jernigan #914965. I am an inmate here at Tomoka C.I., trying to survive within the department of corrections.

    I do not understand why my public defender was unable to keep me away from here. I have no memory of what the two female only witnesses say I did or said

  2. Deanie
    June 8, 2011 at 9:45 am

    This is just such a sad story. Being the mother of a young man with ASD, I completely understand. This is something I worry about constantly. When our children were misdiagnosed at an early age and “fell through the cracks”, we can’t get that time back when they could have been getting treatment. It is time for people in society to try understanding and relating to our children with disabilities. Yes, this boy made a mistake and apologized. I’m sure he has suffered enough being in jail with his disability. It was kind of the judge to reduce his sentence but, he should have let it go as time served. And, what is wrong with these jurors?! Obviously, none of them have children with special needs.

    • June 10, 2011 at 10:00 pm

      Good point. I can’t believe that prosecutors used the fact that he had a think file as an indication that the help that he was getting wasn’t helping.

      Well, anybody who has a child with a disability has file stocked up from here to China.

  3. June 8, 2011 at 10:10 am

    I totally agree with Deanie….they should have dropped his sentence and let it go as time served. Neli obviously needs a lot of intensive services. He fell through the cracks. This is truly such a sad story. Atleast he had people on his side fighting for him because I do see other children that are in group homes and don’t get the services they require. Good luck to Neli!

  4. Dadvocate
    June 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I agree that this sad (and likely avoidable) situation has no winners. The shocking sentence recommended by the jury, thankfully reduced by the Judge, reminds us that we still have a very long way to go in promoting awareness and understanding of issues related to autism. Those who think awareness has been accomplished and it’s time to move on should be directed to this article.

    Every family should develop an autism safety plan along with all the other plans that need to be put in place. Educating everyone who may interact with a person on the spectrum, like local first responders, school security officers, bus aides, neigbors, etc. costs nothing but is invaluable.
    For more, http://www.autismsafetyproject.org

  5. Avery Ecklein
    June 8, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Some adults with autism can’t tell what is right and wrong. Some of them encountered with law enforcement officers.

  6. Haven
    June 8, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    I have long known this is a dangerous problem and those of us involved in the autism community must do what we can to educate policemen, firefighters, and other community helpers in how to deal appropriately with persons who have ASD. As an educator I would like to educate those agencies within our community. Any parent who has a child with autism such as myself, worries about this scenario all the time. I know if my son were told to “stop!” by any stranger — it wouldn’t matter if they were in uniform, his level of anxiety would go off the chart! These organizations much work together with parents, and we must try to educate them and familiarize them with our children and our children with them within our communities. If anyone has any brochures we could disseminate to lacal authorities that will give them insight to this disorder, please inform me.

    My heart is sick that this young man was put in jail, which is not the environment for him to be in.



  7. sam
    June 8, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    If your a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent or close to a person with Autism please use your voice to help Neli. As truthfully one day this could be your child family member or friend. I call both the Governor Bob McDonell at +18047862211 and state Senator Jim Web at +12022244024, and voiced my 1st amendment right on Neli’s case. How can a person with a classified disability that affects their mental ability to comprehend language and feelings be seen as fit to stand and understand trial.
    Just posting ur thought here is nice but using it in a direction of authority may help get Neli transferred from the Virginia State Penitentiary he was transferred to today!
    One day this could be you!

  8. June 9, 2011 at 9:26 am

    I am flabbergasted by the jurors’ hastily and inconsiderate decision to lock away a man suffering from the stigma of autism for more than 10 years. Given the defense’s evidence of not only Neil’s IEP and special education plan along with the medical testimony of how autism affects people neurologically, I cannot fathom how the jurors were persuaded by the prosecution. My three year old son is autistic and screams loud enough to pierce one’s ear when he is angry and / or frustrated. As with most people dealing with autism at times they are incapable of controlling their emotions or telling right from wrong in certain matters.

    Although I am saddened that Neil had to serve time in prison I am however pleased that the judge was lenient. I hope nothing but the best for Neil and his family.

    • Lisa Alexander
      June 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      The judge was lenient??? How does a woman who kills someone with a DUI get 8 months from the same judge? Is that justice?

  9. Lisa Alexander
    June 10, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    These comments are moderated, so I’m not sure if this will make it through the que. I am Neli’s mother and there is A LOT more at play here than an Autistic kid not knowing how to react. Neli did EVERYTHING right. Ask the VA State Supreme Court. So now we are going to blame the victim. We should also teach rape victims how to interact with their rapist when they are about to be raped.

    The public misconception and lack of the true knowledge of what has gone on in this case is absolutely hideous.

    In Stafford murderers and attempted murderers have gotten less time. Let’s talk about what s really going here. I hope this post makes it through so others can see.

    • June 13, 2011 at 8:54 am

      I do agree. I seen numerous times how the police abuse their authority. Your also right that we lack all the knowledge of what actually happened in this case. I know i was thinking about my son and how he gets angry and what an angry special needs kid can do when they don’t understand what is going on and why they are doing that to him. My son can be very polite and well behaved but when he doesn’t understand why something happens and he knows in his heart that it isn’t right he gets really fustrated/angry. Im following all the updates and waiting for some good news. Try to really push for the racist and unexceptable behavior of these police. Im sure you already knew that. My heart really goes out to you.

    • Emmie
      October 10, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      Dear Lisa,

      I just heard about your son’s story and his sentencing. I have a 13 year old son who has autism and is non-verbal. My husband and I always wonders, how he will respond to authorities when questioned. Neli does not belong in jail. We would like to extend our help, if we can… Working to make people aware of your son’s story and to have him released or transfer to a better facility other than jail will be our focus. We have a public relations firm in Los Angeles. We hope to hear from you.

  10. June 10, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I would like to know if and how Autism Speaks will get involved with the case.

  11. sam
    June 11, 2011 at 12:39 am

    Lisa what is the judges name and prosecution? It amazes me that the jury handed down such an extreme time to serve. I don’t get why this has not been put forth on broader news shows. Casey Anthony murdered her child and its everywhere, there is nothing any of us can do to help that situation. Neli is a living breathing young man who deserves to have his story known on a National level, this is someone everyone can help! 1 in 70 boys has autism! This isn’t going to go away!!! I’d like to help however possible I’m in WV and my son is 2 1/2 and diagnosed with ASD and epilepsy… It is so upsetting to see that they used the thickness of his med. records against him. My sons records at 2 is one full 3in. 3 ring binder and starting a new one! I hope you are doing as best you can, and his legal team isn’t just giving up.

  12. Sherelle Griffin
    June 11, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    10 years??? Did he kill somebody? A thick file? I saw my medical file at the doctor. It was thick. What does a thick educational file have to do with what happened outside that library? What I want to know is did anyone from the library’s teen center or the library vouch for Neli? He should have been praised for getting up early to go to the library and his involvement in the teen center. I wish my sons had that ability and desire. Lisa, my heart goes out to you and Neli. BTW The childhood pictures of Neli are great.

    • Lisa Alexander
      June 13, 2011 at 8:53 am

      Thank you Sherelle.

  13. Diane Engster, J.D.
    June 11, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Reacting to an unjust arrest in this case is not the result of disability. All this stuff you have to do as part of the “defense” is just part of an unjust system. To say that the officer did nothing wrong is ridiculous. What he did was not part of protocol when approaching a suspect with a gun. I heard the officer testify. I think he knew very quickly that Neli was an innocent bystander who never had a gun. Why else, when sirens are blaring all around in search of a violent criminal, would he not call for back up and approach Neli alone, the way he did?

    Once, he determined that Neli had no gun and posed no danger, that should have been the end of it. And Neli let him make that determination, according to the officers own testimony, without resisting. But, the officer couldn’t just let it go. I believe that his demand for Neli’s identity, and the arrest where just an unnecessary abuse of authority and power, for whatever reason. I do believe it was racial but also the way some officers attempt to show their authority by bullying the public to show who’s got the power.

    Some of what is being said about people with autism and police can be appropriate under certain circumstances. People with disabilities and the police, in general, need to be educated about how to interact. But saying these things in this case is not appropriate.

    If we truly want to educate people, and each other, please do some research on the excessive use of force by police especially against minorities, including people wtith disabilities.

    • Lisa Alexander
      June 13, 2011 at 9:04 am

      Thank yu Diane. THe writing on the wall is crystal clear. That phone call never would have been made if Neli was white. Neli committed no crime. He defended himself. Lie upon lies were told in that courtoom. The attempts to slander me and my family.

      Now the lead prosecutor Eric Olsen is running for Commonwealth Attorney and has Neli’s case being listed as on of his “Notable” cases. It sickens my stomach. Both Olsen and the other prosecutor on this case has been quoted as saying Neli’s ASD had nothing to do with the way he reacted that day. In their minds and eyes, they don’t see autism only the color of his skin.

      Yesterday I drove 3 hours to a state Penitentiary to see Neli. THe damage they have done is irreparable. He is lost in a world he knows nothing about. Whenever I would move on closer to hear him speak, he would “flinch” and is constantly apologizing. I don’t know what my son has been through, but it is a shame what has been done to him.

  14. Sue
    June 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I spoke to the governors answering person and she put me in my place, and confirmed that I wasn’t recording, of which I wasn’t. She proceeded to tell me she hadn’t heard of this case and the governor had no control over the courts. After stating I have the right to voice my opinion to my state reps, and gave a breakdown on autism. Also telling her that June 8th the Governor was signing into act the state insurance reform bill that makes private insurances accept and treat people with autism, as a disease or disability. She then said the only thing he could do is give a state pardon but Neli his defense or parents must start the process, otherwise he can’t do anything. I said fine but he can pull the case up and review it. She said yes, I said fine please give him the info and aked for her to give me the boys name of which she forgot to take down at that point she did and the call ended. The Governor Bob McDonnell 8047862211.

  15. icylda poulina
    June 13, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Neli does not belong in PRISON…he needs treatment to reverse the DAMAGE that stafford county has caused.Why judge sharp refused to honor the treatment facilty his defense team has put forward.NELI was not being released home,but to that facility.I hope judge sharp acknowledges that there is a HIGHER JUDGE than himself–the ALMIGHTY GOD… I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth;yea,I will sing praise among the multitude.For HE shall stand at the right hand of the poor,to save HIM from those that CONDEM his SOUL,psalm 109:30-31.

  16. Lisa Alexander
    June 13, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    A little leisurely reading.


    Attempted Murder in Stafford equals ZERO jail time for white woman.


    White woman KILLS someone with a DUI and got 10 years. Same Judge that sentence my son gave her 8 months.


    Impersonating a Police Officer (This bastard is out on BOND)


    Where was the school shutdowns and swat teams here.

    Young Black Man Falsely Accused of Rape by a white girl. After mom learns the truth, she goes to the courts, who fought against his release. They refuse to remove him from the sex offender’s registry and wipe his record clean.


    Hispanic woman DIES (this was within the last month) in the local jail where Neli is because they failed to listen to her regarding her lupus. It was a case of mistaken identity and she tried to tell them so. Within 24 hours she was dead and left behind 4 children.


  17. June 24, 2011 at 12:22 am

    I am a mother of an autistic child, and wear my Autism Speaks pin. But I am watching carefully to see how the organization will respond to this case. I would hope that they would get involved by writing a letter to the Governor.

    If I am to continue my support; I would like to see some type of advocacy.

  18. Andy
    July 30, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Acts in externally induced meltdown should be classified as non-liable, the same way as epileptic fits. In addition, if a cop initiates physical contact with a tactile-defensive person, any response should be deemed self-defence. Forget “protecting the public” – this is about protecting vulnerable people FROM the public (or rather, from aggressive, overempowered police). NT’s would not tolerate being held responsible for things they couldn’t help, for defending themselves in conditions of extreme stress, or for refusing to submit to sensory onslaught amounting to torture. The fact that they impose such onerous and impossible demands on autistic people proves that many people still see us as subhuman.

  19. August 1, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Do you have attorneys in Florida that help families with helping an adult inmate with an autism spectrum received appropriate accommodations for sensory overloads inside a state correctional institution? Please reply to bpjok2@gmail.com

  20. grandma judy
    August 5, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    This is what every parent of a child with ASD worries about. The worry never goes away.
    My son, age 44, is high functioning, has a job, drives a car. He hasn’t had a physical outburst in years.
    But—-under the right circumstances, it could happen—–
    The worry never goes away

  21. Reginald Ti-Reg Schettini
    October 19, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Time for change in this up side down legal system!

  1. June 8, 2011 at 10:17 am
  2. July 8, 2011 at 9:06 am

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