Family says Black man who died in custody suffered “absolute brutality”
Irvo Otieno, 28, 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.
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 with a local prosecutor, 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 authorities say he died March 6 during the admission process.
They called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the case, saying Otieno’s constitutional rights were clearly violated.
“What I saw today was heartbreaking, America. It was disturbing. It was traumatic. My son was tortured,” said Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko.
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, earlier this year and comes nearly three years after 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.
“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.
Mark Krudys, another attorney for Otieno’s family, said at the news conference that the video showed all seven of the deputies now facing charges pushing down on Otieno, who 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,” he said.
Ten people so far have been charged with second-degree murder in Otieno’s death. The seven Henrico County Sheriff’s deputies were charged Tuesday and additional charges were announced Thursday against three people who were employed by the hospital.
The footage the family watched Thursday has not been publicly released. But Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill also described it in court Wednesday, saying at the first hearing for the deputies that Otieno was smothered to death, local news outlets reported.
Baskervill said Otieno did not appear combative and was sitting in a chair before being pulled to the ground by the officers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
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. They were being held without bond, and it wasn’t immediately clear if they had attorneys who could speak on their behalf. A spokeswoman for the state police said she didn’t know if they had obtained counsel, and none were listed in court records. The news release did not say what role they are alleged to have had in Otieno’s death.
Additional charges and arrests are pending, Baskervill said.
Otieno, who was a child when his family emigrated from Kenya and grew up in suburban Richmond, 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.
That set off a chain of events that led to him spending several days in custody before authorities say he died March 6 as he was being admitted to Central State Hospital south of Richmond.
Krudys said the footage from the hospital also showed a lack of urgency to help Otieno after the deputies determined “that he was lifeless and not breathing.”
Otieno was a deeply loved young man, an aspiring musician who had been a well-known high school athlete, Krudys said.
“There is goodness in his music and that’s all I’m left with now — he’s gone,” 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 from the sheriff’s office.
The police department said in a news release that officers encountered Otieno while responding to a report of a possible burglary in suburban Richmond, and that based on his behavior, they put him under an emergency custody order and took him to a local hospital for evaluation.
According to Krudys, Otieno was experiencing a mental health crisis and a neighbor called police over concerns about him gathering lawn lights from a yard. He said Otieno’s mother tried to de-escalate the initial response from a crowd of police officers and said the family supported him being taken to a hospital for treatment.
But 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.
While Otieno was in jail, he was denied access to needed medications, the family attorneys said. The family also viewed video from that facility on Thursday, which they said showed Otieno was subjected to further brutality by unidentified officers.
Crump said he was pepper sprayed, and Krudys said the video showed officers on March 6 charging into his cell, which was covered in feces, as Otieno was naked and handcuffed. The video shows officers carrying an “almost lifeless” Otieno out by his arms and legs “like an animal” to a vehicle to be transported to the state hospital.
“My son was treated like a dog, worse than a dog,” Ouko said.
Shannon Taylor, the commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, said in a statement Thursday that she’s conducting a review of what happened in the jail that day, and she pledged to release her findings. The Henrico sheriff declined comment beyond a statement released earlier in the week.
Around 4 p.m. on March 6, employees of the sheriff’s office arrived at Central State Hospital to admit Otieno, according to Baskervill. It was not until 7:28 p.m. that evening that state police were called to investigate his death, she said.
In court Wednesday, a defense attorney 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.
Two of the deputies were released on bond, according to court records and local media. The others remained in custody, with hearings set for next week.
Edward Nickel, an attorney for Deputy Bradley Disse, one of the defendants who was released, 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.
The Associated Press sent emails and other inquiries and left messages Thursday attempting to reach attorneys listed in court records for the other deputies.
The Henrico Fraternal Order of Police-Lodge 4 stood by the deputies in a statement posted to social media on Tuesday, urging against a rush to judgment and stressing that the charges are yet to go through the rigors of the legal system.
News outlets, including AP, have sought video of the altercation. Officials are withholding it, citing the pending investigation. Crump said Thursday the family believes the public should see the footage.
“How do we build trust unless we have transparency, and then we have accountability?” he said.
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