Seven officers and three hospital workers are facing murder charges after being accused of smothering a Black man to death at a Virginia state psychiatric institution.
At the officers’ first court hearing Wednesday, Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill said that Henrico County sheriff’s deputies held down 28-year-old Irvo Otieno on the floor of Central State Hospital for 12 minutes while he was shackled and handcuffed, according to local outlets. The incident occurred while Otieno was being admitted to the state mental institution on March 6.
Contrary to authorities’ claims, Baskervill said that security camera footage from the institution shows Otieno did not appear combative before the incident and was sitting in a chair when officers pulled him to the floor, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Otieno suffocated from the weight of the deputies lying on top of him, Baskervill reportedly argued, describing it as an act of deliberately cruel treatment. The prosecutor said there was no justification for the officers’ actions, which she called a “demonstration of power that was unlawful,” according to the newspaper.
“You can see they’re putting their back into it,” attorney Mark Krudys said at a press conference Thursday alongside Otieno’s family and civil rights attorney Ben Crump. The family and attorneys viewed the security footage of the attack earlier Thursday. Officials have declined to release the video to news outlets, citing the pending investigation by Virginia State Police.
“Every part of his body is being pushed down with absolute brutality,” Krudys continued. “You cannot even see his image many times.”
Seven Henrico County deputies were arrested earlier this week and charged with second-degree murder in Otieno’s death. The deputies are Kaiyell Sanders, Randy Boyer, Tabitha Levere, Bradley Disse, Dwayne Bramble, Jermaine Branch and Brandon Rogers.
A judge granted bail to Branch and Disse after their attorneys argued the two deputies had clean backgrounds and were not a flight risk, though it’s unclear whether they have posted bail. The remaining deputies told the judge they are still working to retain counsel, and they will continue to be held until at least next week, the Times-Dispatch reported.
“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 in a statement Thursday.
According to the family’s attorneys, Otieno was an aspiring musician and well-known high school athlete in Henrico County. Immigrating here from Kenya with his family as a child, Otieno was “deeply loved by his parents,” Crump said.
“This was my baby. He cared for people. He cared that people were treated right. That was at the core of the upbringing in our home,” Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, said at the Thursday press conference.
Otieno had a history of mental health battles and was experiencing distress at the time of his first encounter with law enforcement. According to Henrico County Police — a separate agency from the county sheriff’s department — officers were responding to a report of possible burglary on March 3 in suburban Richmond and encountered Otieno, putting him under an emergency custody order “based on his behavior” and taking him to a local hospital for evaluation. The police’s statement on the incident did not describe Otieno’s behavior that led to the order.
Krudys told The Associated Press on Thursday that he believes the incident stemmed from a neighbor calling police over a concern about Otieno gathering lawn lights from a yard. Otieno’s mother attempted to deescalate the encounter with police, and the family was initially supportive of him being taken to a hospital because they believed he was going to receive needed mental health treatment.
Police alleged that Otieno became “physically assaultive toward officers, who arrested him” and took him to Henrico County jail, where he was served with several charges and held over the weekend without most or all of his medications. According to Baskervill, Henrico jail video shows several deputies tackling and beating Otieno while he is naked, local outlets reported.
“Can you imagine how he is feeling? He was naked in his cell and not receiving his medications. They were potentially abusive to him. According to the prosecutor, they pepper-sprayed him,” Krudys told WTVR-TV on Wednesday.
On March 6, authorities transported Otieno from the jail to Central State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric institution. According to Krudys, Otieno’s family was confused as to why their relative was sent to a state institution and not a facility meant to help heal and treat patients struggling with their mental health.
“He was treated deplorably,” Krudys told WTVR. “He was treated with force and not love when he was in a mental health crisis.”
Otieno died when deputies allegedly attacked him during the intake process. Defense attorneys argued that two medical injections administered to Otieno during the incident may have played a part in his death, according to the Times-Dispatch. Baskervill disputed the claim, reportedly saying that Otieno “probably died before the injections” because his heart already stopped by the time the injections were administered.
The Henrico County medical examiner’s office has not yet released to the public its final determination on the cause and manner of Otieno’s death. According to the newspaper, Baskervill said the medical examiner ruled preliminarily that Otieno’s cause of death was asphyxiation and the manner was homicide — however, the doctor who performed the autopsy reportedly plans to view video from Central State and Henrico jail.
“Mental illness should not be your ticket to death. There was a chance to rescue him. There was a chance to stop what was going on. And I don’t understand how all systems failed him,” Ouko said.
“They smothered the breath out of my baby.”