Prosecutor: Black man smothered to death at Virginia mental hospital

Security camera footage shows how Irvo Otieno was handcuffed and shackled while being pinned down by the deputies who are now facing murder charges in his death

S.T.A.R. Center
Visitors walk toward Building 114, the S.T.A.R. Center, at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, in May 2018.BOB BROWN (AP)

Security camera footage from a state mental hospital shows a Black Virginia man who was handcuffed and shackled being pinned down by the deputies who are now facing second-degree murder charges in his death, a prosecutor said in court.

Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill said during the seven deputies’ first court hearing Wednesday that Irvo Otieno was smothered to death, local news outlets reported.

The officers had no justification for putting Otieno, who was being checked in, on the floor, Baskervill said. The prosecutor 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,” the prosecutor said, according to the newspaper.

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, according to statements from his family and one of their attorneys. 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 seven Henrico County Sheriff’s deputies.

Otieno’s family was expected to view video of the events that preceded his death on Thursday, according to a news release from his attorneys, Mark Krudys and Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney known for representing victims in police brutality cases.

What’s been described so far “paints a heinous and inhumane image,” Crump, who represented the family of George Floyd, said in a statement.

“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.

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 has said.

He first came into the custody of law enforcement March 3, according to a timeline provided by Henrico County Police, a separate agency.

The police department said in a news release that officers responding to a report of a possible burglary March 3 in suburban Richmond encountered Otieno, and 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.

In an interview Thursday, Krudys said his understanding was that a neighbor called police over concern about Otieno gathering lawn lights from a yard. Krudys said Otieno’s mother tried to de-escalate the initial encounter with police and the family was initially supportive of him 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.

“It’s just incredibly tragic. And it also evokes a lot of anger with regard to the family as to how their loved one was treated,” Krudys said.

In court Wednesday, Baskervill outlined the new details of her allegations as she sought to keep two of the seven deputies in custody after their attorneys asked for bail, the Times-Dispatch reported.

The judge set bail for two of the deputies. It wasn’t immediately clear if they posted it and 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 yet made public its final determination on the cause and manner of Otieno’s death.

Baskervill also said Wednesday that some hospital employees watched the altercation and others joined in, according to TV station WTVR. Additional charges are pending, she said.

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 incident from the state agency that runs the hospital or Virginia State Police. It is being withheld from public view, with officials citing the pending investigation.

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