By SARAH RANKIN Associated Press
DINWIDDIE, Va. (AP) — Video from a state mental hospital shows a Black Virginia man who was handcuffed and shackled being pinned to the ground by deputies who are now facing second-degree murder charges in his death, according to relatives of the man and their attorneys who viewed the footage Thursday.
Speaking at a news conference shortly after watching the video, the family and attorneys condemned the brutal treatment they said Irvo Otieno, 28, was subjected to, first at a local jail and then at the state hospital where he died March 6. They called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the case, saying Otieno’s constitutional rights were clearly violated.
Otieno’s case marks the latest example of a Black man’s in-custody death that has law enforcement under scrutiny. It follows the the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, and the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
Ben Crump, who represented Floyd’s family and is now working with Otieno’s, quickly drew a comparison at the news conference.
“It is truly shocking that nearly three years after the brutal killing of George Floyd by police, another family is grieving a loved one who allegedly died in nearly the exact same manner — being pinned down by police for 12 agonizing minutes,” Crump said.
Mark Krudys, another attorney for Otieno’s family, described how all seven of the deputies pushed down “every part of his body” with “absolute brutality,” stressing that Otieno was in handcuffs and leg irons.
“You can see that they’re putting their back into it. Every part of his body is being pushed down with absolute brutality. You cannot even see his image many times.”
Ten people so far are facing second-degree murder charges in the case: seven Henrico County Sheriff’s deputies and three people who were employed at the hospital.
The video that the family watched Thursday has not been publicly released. But Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill described it in court Wednesday, saying at the first hearing for the seven deputies that Otieno was smothered to death, local news outlets reported.
Baskervill said in court that the officers had no justification for putting Otieno, who was being checked into the hospital, on the floor. As the family said Thursday, she said Otieno did not appear combative and was sitting in a chair before being pulled to the floor by the officers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
It was a “demonstration of power that was unlawful,” Baskervill said.
She announced Thursday in a news release the additional charges against the hospital employees: Darian M. Blackwell, 23, of Petersburg; Wavie L. Jones, 34, of Chesterfield; and Sadarius D. Williams, 27, of North Dinwiddie. It wasn’t immediately clear if the three have attorneys who can speak on their behalf. A spokeswoman for the state police said she didn’t know if they had attorneys.
Otieno faced mental health struggles at the time of his arrest
Otieno, a 28-year-old from Henrico County, had a history of mental health struggles and was experiencing mental distress at the time of his initial encounter with law enforcement earlier this month, his family and their attorneys said at the news conference. He died March 6 as he was being admitted to Central State Hospital south of Richmond, Baskervill said in a news release Tuesday announcing the charges against the Henrico County Sheriff’s deputies.
Krudys said the footage showed a lack of urgency to help Otieno after the deputies determined “that he was lifeless and not breathing.”
“And then you see people standing around with their hands in their pockets and looking away,” Krudys said at the news conference. “And there’s an appreciable period of time before any kind of rescue efforts are started.”
After CPR is administered, the deputies “drift away out of the room and into a conversation by themselves,” Krudys said.
Otieno, whose family is from Kenya, was a deeply loved and well-regarded young man, an aspiring musician who had been a well-known high school athlete in the area, Krudys said.
“There is goodness in his music and that’s all I’m left with now — he’s gone,” Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, said at the news conference while clutching a framed photo of her son.
“I cannot be at his wedding. I’ll never see a grandchild … because someone refused to help him. No one stood up to stop what was going on,” she said.
Otieno was first taken into custody March 3, according to a timeline provided by Henrico County Police, a separate agency.
The police department said in a news release that officers encountered Otieno while responding to a report of a possible burglary March 3 in suburban Richmond, and that based on his behavior, put him under an emergency custody order and took him to a local hospital for evaluation. The news release did not describe the behavior that led to the order.
Krudys said a neighbor called police over concern about Otieno gathering lawn lights from a yard. He said Otieno’s mother tried to de-escalate the initial police encounter and the family supported his being taken to a hospital, believing that he needed mental health treatment.
While he was at the hospital, police said he became “became physically assaultive toward officers, who arrested him” and took him to a local jail that is managed by the Henrico Sheriff’s Office, where he was served with several charges.
Around 4 p.m. on March 6, employees of the sheriff’s office arrived at the Central State Hospital south of Richmond to admit Otieno, Baskervill said.
Krudys said there was a delay in getting Otieno needed medications while he was in jail. He also said the family does not understand why Otieno was taken from the jail to the state hospital about 45 minutes away rather than to a local mental health facility.
Questions remain surrounding Otieno’s death
On Wednesday, the judge set bail for two of the deputies. It wasn’t immediately clear if they have been released. The other deputies were in the process of securing legal counsel and remained in custody, news outlets reported.
One of the defense attorneys suggested that two medical injections Otieno received may have played a role in his death, which Baskervill disputed, the Times-Dispatch reported.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has not released its final determination on how Otieno died.
Edward Nickel, an attorney for Deputy Bradley Disse, one of the defendants, said in an email Thursday that Disse has served “honorably” during a 20-year career with the sheriff’s department.
“He is looking forward to his opportunity to try this case and for the full truth to be shared in court and ultimately vindicated,” Nickel said in an email.
Another defense attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
Baskervill has said the Virginia State Police, which is handling the investigation, was not called to the hospital until several hours after Otieno died.
News outlets, including The Associated Press, have sought video of the altercation from the state agency that runs the hospital or Virginia State Police. Officials are withholding it from public view, citing the pending investigation.
Associated Press reporter Ben Finley in Norfolk contributed to this report.