What was Matthew Rushin thinking?
That’s what everyone involved in his case has sought to answer since the 21-year-old sped his Chevrolet Tahoe into oncoming traffic on Virginia Beach’s First Colonial Road a year and a half ago. Two cars were struck in the collision, leaving the driver of one severely disabled.
For investigators, the former engineering student’s past, his actions and statements that night, and data recorded by his vehicle in the seconds before the crash make it clear: He was trying to commit suicide, with no regard for who might be hurt or killed along with him.
Matthew’s family, and the medical professionals and autism experts they’ve enlisted, are convinced it wasn’t intentional. To understand why he behaved the way he did, said what he said, and reacted the way he has, you have to fully understand autism spectrum disorder and the impact it has on those afflicted with it, they say.
“Everyone who has looked at this is convinced this was not an intentional act,” Terra Vance, an industrial and organizational psychology consultant said, referring to the experts that Matthew’s family has reached out to. “There’s nothing at all that points to that.”
Last month, the family submitted a pardon request to Gov. Ralph Northam, asking that Matthew be freed from the 10-year prison sentence he received in November.
They contend that he didn’t fully understand what he was doing when he pleaded guilty to two counts of malicious wounding and hit and run earlier that year. They also don’t believe his autism and prior brain injury were adequately considered in his sentencing.
The case has been assigned to an investigator with the parole division, according to the family’s attorney, who will then report their findings to the governor. It’s not known how long it will take before a decision is made.
Among the things included in the pardon request were documents about Matthew’s medical history, a recent evaluation by a neuropsychologist, and a letter from a traffic collision reconstructionist who maintains that Matthew accidentally pressed the gas pedal rather than the brake that night.
This week, Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle sent a letter to the governor laying out the evidence gathered by his office.
He also addressed the enormous attention the case has received on social media, including an online petition calling for Matthew’s release that had had more than 136,000 signatures as of Friday. Hundreds participated in a march held last month in Norfolk on Matthew’s behalf.
“The public dialogue surrounding this case has become so far removed from what actually took place that I find it necessary to send you this letter and attachment,” Stolle wrote. “It’s important that you have an accurate account of Matthew Rushin’s actions on Jan. 4, 2019, as well as the subsequent investigation and prosecution of this case.”
On that night in January 2019, George and Danna Cusick were in Virginia Beach looking for a vacation rental to share with their two grown kids and six grandchildren that summer. The retired Staten Island couple had been married more than 50 years and enjoyed nothing more than spending time with their family.
Matthew Rushin, then 20, was living at home with his parents and sister, and attending Old Dominion University. As a child, Matthew was diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and later with anxiety. Two years before the collision, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in another car crash.
On the night of the incident, Matthew told his mother, Lavern Rushin, he was going to Panera to pick up some pastries and meet up with his girlfriend. It was raining hard and his mother said she asked him to stay home. But Matthew’s father said he thought it was fine and Matthew left.
He was driving in a parking lot in the Hilltop shopping area when he got into a minor accident with another vehicle. As he waited for the other driver to get off his phone and out of his car, Matthew started to panic and drove away, Lavern Rushin said.
From there, he sped onto First Colonial Road and ran a red light, according to investigators. He then made an abrupt U-turn and drove head on into oncoming traffic.
A data recorder from his SUV would later show he was driving 65 mph and never hit the brake, investigators said. It also indicated the accelerator was fully engaged until a half second before impact, and Matthew was not wearing a seat belt.
The SUV crashed first into a Ford Explorer carrying the Cusicks, hitting it on the driver’s side as George Cusick apparently swerved to try to avoid the collision. Matthew’s vehicle then swung away, and was struck in the rear by a Honda Element.
When Matthew emerged from his SUV, he was confronted by the Honda driver, who demanded to know why he had driven into oncoming traffic. Three police officers and a civilian witness reported hearing Matthew say it was a suicide attempt, according to Stolle’s letter.
“I don’t know man, I was just trying to kill myself,” is what the civilian witness said he heard. One of the officers said he heard Matthew say, “I was trying to kill myself, okay?”
Lavern Rushin said Matthew was being restrained by some of the witnesses when the Honda driver asked him, “What were you trying to do, kill yourself?” Out of fear, she says he just repeated what the man said.
It’s a common thing for an autistic person to do, especially when they’re frightened, said Nance, the psychology consultant who also is autistic.
Lavern Rushin maintains that Matthew made the U-turn in a panic because he realized he needed to get back to the accident in the parking lot.
“His anxiety level was through the roof,” she said. Matthew has said he blacked out from the time between the turn and the crash.
A traffic collision reconstructionist hired by the family said the evidence indicated that in his panic, Matthew accidentally hit the gas pedal, instead of the brake. A neurologist who looked at police body cam video of Matthew after the accident believes there were signs that he suffered a seizure that night, Lavern Rushin said.
During a recorded interview with police afterwards, officers brought up the single car accident Matthew was involved in two years before. He at first denied it, then agreed the two crashes were similar, Stolle wrote.
In the first crash, which occurred in January 2017, Matthew drove his Mazda into the metal gate at a Little League field, where the roadway ended, according to Stolle.
The car rolled multiple times after hitting a parking lot divider, then came to rest against a tree. Matthew was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected, landing in a creek. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and was hospitalized for two weeks.
The lead investigator found no evidence of vehicle defect, nor any indication that Matthew had tried to avoid the crash, Stolle said. Data from the Mazda showed his speed went from 68 to 81 mph in the five seconds before impact, and that he hadn’t applied the brake.
A year later, Matthew was admitted to a state psychiatric hospital after he cut his wrists.
Lavern Rushin doesn’t believe either of those incidents were suicide attempts. In the 2017 accident, she said he took a turn too fast on a wet road where there was construction, hit an embankment and then the gate.
The cuts he made on his arms in 2018 were too superficial to be considered a suicide attempt, Nance said, and were more likely a form of self harm known as cutting, which is also common among autistic people. Matthew later said it was his way of asking for help, Laverne Rushin said.
The couple in the Ford Explorer hit by Matthew last year were seriously injured. George Cusick, then 72, was in a coma for nearly two months.
Matthew was arrested, jailed and charged with two counts of attempted murder. Bond was repeatedly denied.
According to Stolle, Matthew’s attorneys later approached prosecutors and offered to have him plead guilty to two counts of malicious wounding and hit and run if the attempted murder charges were dropped. Prosecutors agreed to the deal, he said.
Lavern Rushin said she didn’t want Matthew to take it, and doesn’t believe he fully understood what he was doing when he agreed to it.
At his sentencing in November, Danna Cusick and her children tearfully told the judge how the family’s lives have been forever altered by that night. They talked about the fun loving man that George Cusick once was, and how he’s no longer able to walk, talk or feed himself. He often doesn’t recognize his family.
Lavern Rushin and a psychologist hired by the family also testified, telling the court about the sweet, smart and giving person that Matthew is, as well as his complicated his medical history.
State sentencing guidelines suggested that Matthew serve no more than six years and four months. Prosecutors, however, asked the judge to issue a 20-year sentence, pointing to the severity of the crash and the damage done to the Cusick family. In the end, Circuit Judge Stephen Mahan gave him 10 years, saying he took into account Matthew’s history as well as the damage done to the Cusick family.
The Rushin family appealed the sentence, arguing that mitigating factors like Matthew’s good works in the community, mental health issues and traumatic brain injury weren’t given enough consideration. The Court of Appeals, however, determined that the sentencing judge adequately balanced them against the tragic consequences for the victims.
Miriam Airington-Fisher, a Richmond attorney hired by his family to represent Matthew in his pardon request, believes prosecutors unfairly portrayed Matthew as callous and lacking remorse. He may have seemed that way to them because it’s difficult for autistic people to show emotion, she said.
“All of these things taken without any context whatsoever (of Matthew’s diagnoses) is very misleading,” she said. “There seems to be overwhelming evidence of mitigating factors that are unique to him. His actions should be viewed with those in mind.”
For the Cusick family, all the online attention the case has been getting has been difficult. They feel the facts are being distorted and that they’re being personally attacked in some of the posts.
“It’s all basically been one-sided,” Danna Cusick said. “We’re just beside ourselves with the unfairness of it all.”
As for George, he’s 74 now and continues to live in a nursing facility. He battled Covid-19 recently, but has recovered. Because of the pandemic she’s only able to see him though Skype.
“He doesn’t talk, he just listens,” she said. “I asked him recently if he recognized me and he smiled. That was a good day.”
Jane Harper, 757-222-5097, firstname.lastname@example.org
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