Irvo Otieno died after officers pinned him to the ground for 12 minutes. Now 10 people are charged with murder
Irvo Otieno died after being handcuffed, shackled, and pinned to the ground for 12 minutes by a group of law enforcement officers at a mental hospital in Virginia.
Footage of the 6 March incident shows the 28-year-old Black man was “smothered him to death”, according to Ann Cabell Baskervill, Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney.
In an emotional press conference on 16 March, Otieno’s mother described how her son was killed “like a dog”.
“What I saw today was heartbreaking, America. It was disturbing. It was traumatic. My son was tortured,” the 28-year-old’s mother Caroline Ouko said.
Now, ten people – seven deputies and three hospital workers – have been charged with his murder and the family is calling on the Department of Justice to take action.
Otieno’s death marks just the latest instance of a Black man dying during an interaction with law enforcement – coming months after Tyre Nichols died after being beaten by Memphis police officers and almost three years after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Here’s what we know so far about the case:
Law enforcement interaction
Otieno was first detained by law enforcement back on 3 March, the Henrico County Police said in a press release.
Officers initially engaged with Otieno when they responded to a report that a burglary had taken place in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia.
He was having a mental health crisis at the time and a neighbour had called police, concerned that he was collecting lawn lights from one of the yards in the area, said Mark Krudys, an attorney for Otieno’s family.
As officers arrived on the scene, the 28-year-old’s mother attempted to calm the situation, he said.
At the time, she supported Otieno being taken to hospital for treatment.
Due to his behaviour, officers – and the county’s crisis intervention team – put him under an emergency custody order and took him to a local hospital for evaluation.
At the hospital, police claim Otieno “became physically assaultive toward officers, who arrested him” and transported him to the Henrico County Jail West.
He was charged with three counts of assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct in a hospital and vandalism.
Day of Otieno’s death
Otieno spent three days in the custody of the jail before he was moved on 6 March to Central State Hospital, a state-run mental health facility.
The commonwealth attorney’s office said Otieno arrived at the facility at around 4pm to be admitted for treatment.
It is not clear what led authorities to move the Black man there.
During the intake process, the attorney’s office said that Otieno became “combative” and was “physically restrained” by officers, before dying at the hospital “during the intake process”.
State police were called to the scene at 7.28pm to investigate his death.
Ann Cabell Baskervill, Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney, spoke about surveillance footage of the incident in court on 15 March.
She said that the footage shows Otieno did not appear to be fighting the officers but was simply sitting in a chair before the officers then pulled him down to the floor.
She described how he was in handcuffs and leg irons as seven deputies pinned him down on the ground for 12 minutes.
The footage left her with no doubts that the 28-year-old was smothered to death by the officers.
“They smothered him to death,” she said. “He died of asphyxia due to being smothered.”
Ms Baskervill rejected a suggestion by a defence lawyer that two medical injections that Otieno had received may have contributed to his death.
The final cause of death hasn’t yet been made public by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Otieno’s family and their attorneys – civil rights attorney Ben Crump and Mr Krudys – were also shown the footage this week.
At a press conference held by the family on Thursday, his mother said it showed “my son was treated like a dog, worse than a dog”.
Mr Crump said Otieno was pepper-sprayed by officers and was denied access to his medications at the facility.
It also showed the officers going into his cell, which was covered in excrement as Otieno was naked and in handcuffs, Mr Krudys said.
“You can see that they’re putting their back into it. Every part of his body is being pushed down with absolute brutality,” Mr Krudys said.
He added that the footage also revealed a lack of haste to aid Otieno after law enforcement realised “he was lifeless and not breathing”.
He was “almost lifeless” as he was carried out of the cell by his arms and legs “like an animal”, he said.
Mr Crump compared the Black man’s death to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“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 agonising minutes,” he said.
He described the video as a “commentary on how inhumane law enforcement officials treat people who are having a mental health crisis as criminals rather than treating them as people who are in need of help”.
“He, in the videos, [is] never confrontational with them. He is not posing a threat to them. He’s not violent or aggressive with them. You see in the video he is restrained with handcuffs, he has leg irons on, and you see in the majority of the video that he seems to be in between lifelessness and unconsciousness, but yet you see him being restrained so brutally with a knee on his neck,” he added.
“This was a mental health crisis. He wasn’t committing a crime,” he said.
The footage hasn’t yet been made public with Mr Crump calling on authorities to release it.
“How do we build trust unless we have transparency, and then we have accountability?” he asked.
Ten people have now been charged with second-degree murder over Otieno’s death – seven Henrico County Sheriff’s Office deputies and three hospital workers.
The officers were first charged on 14 March before the hospital staff – Darian Blackwell, 23, from Petersburg, Wavie Jones, 34, from Chesterfield, and Sadarius Williams, 27, from North Dinwiddie – were charged on 16 March.
Two deputies have since been released on bond while the others are still in custody, with hearings scheduled for next week.
Lawyer Edward Nickel – who represents Deputy Bradley Disse, one of the two who were released – told the Associated Press that the officer had served “honourably” in the police department for two decades.
“He is looking forward to his opportunity to try this case and for the full truth to be shared in court and ultimately vindicated,” he said.
Ms Baskervill added that further charges and arrests are pending.
The commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, Shannon Taylor, said in a statement that her office is also investigating what took place at the jail that day.
The Henrico County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t commented beyond a statement put out on 14 March.
“As Henrico County sheriff and on behalf of our entire office, I extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Irvo Otieno,” Sheriff Alisa Gregory said. “The events of March 6, at their core, represent a tragedy because Mr Otieno’s life was lost. This loss is felt by not only those close to him but our entire community.”
“The seven deputies who were transferring custody of Mr Otieno have been placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the Commonwealth’s cases,” she added. “As an office, we are cooperating fully with the investigation of the Virginia State Police. Separately, we are conducting our own independent review of this incident.”
“Public safety is what we stand for as a Sheriff’s Office. We will continue to maintain the highest professional standards in how we serve and protect those in our custody, the community at-large and our staff,” she concluded.
In a statement shared on Facebook on 14 March, the Henrico Fraternal Order of Police-Lodge 4 said “policing in America today is difficult, made even more so by the possibility of being criminally charged while performing their duty”.
“Today, seven Henrico County Sheriff’s Deputies were charged with murder in relation to the death of inmate Irvo Otieno,” they added. “The death of Mr. Otierno was tragic, and we express our condolences to his family. We also stand behind the seven accused deputies now charged with murder by the Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Baskervill.”
“Little information regarding these charges has been released by the prosecutor. The deputies were not charged using warrants or indictments, but through a rarely-used process called an ‘information’ that allows for little outside scrutiny from impartial judges or magistrates,” they claimed. “From news reports it appears that the Virginia State Police have not completed their investigation of the death, and the Medical Examiner has not released a cause or manner of death. With these things in mind, and cognizant of every accused’s presumption of innocence, we support our Brothers and Sisters, and hope for a quick resolution that clears their names.”
Mental health crisis
Mr Otieno left Kenya as a child along with his family and grew up in the suburbs of the Virginia capital of Richmond.
His family said he was an aspiring musician and a former high school athlete – but he struggled with his mental health.
Speaking at Thursday’s press conference, Ms Ouko said there were long periods of time when you “wouldn’t even know something was wrong” but that at other occasions “he would go into some kind of distress and then you know he needs to see a doctor”.
“Mental illness should not be your ticket to death,” she added.
Now, she said that all she has of her son is his music.
“There is goodness in his music and that’s all I’m left with now — he’s gone,” she said, while clutching a 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.”