Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP
Seven law enforcement officers have been charged with second-degree murder over the death of a Black man at a state psychiatric hospital last week, according to a Virginia prosecutor.
Irvo Noel Otieno, 28, was taken into emergency custody on March 3 after experiencing mental health distress.
He spent three days in a local jail in Henrico County, south of Richmond, Va., where his family’s lawyer says he was “brutalized” by officers — including being pepper sprayed, stripped naked and deprived of his medications — before being transferred to Central State Hospital, a state-run mental facility in Dinwiddie County.
Otieno was restrained with handcuffs and leg shackles throughout the hospital intake process, according to Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill. In court on Wednesday, she said videos show that seven sheriff’s deputies held him on the ground for some 12 minutes.
“They smothered him to death,” she said. “He died of asphyxia due to being smothered.”
The video shows “deliberate and cruel” treatment, said Baskervill, who filed a criminal information charge — a way of beginning criminal proceedings without needing a grand jury’s vote — against the deputies.
In a statement shared with NPR, Baskervill described that as a rare but necessary step.
“This legal tactic is for the purpose of protecting other Henrico County jail residents,” she said. “It allows for a justified and immediate removal of these seven individuals from their current capacities.”
Baskervill’s office named the deputies as Randy Joseph Boyer, 57; Dwayne Alan Bramble, 37; Jermaine Lavar Branch, 45; Bradley Thomas Disse, 43; Tabitha Renee Levere, 50; Brandon Edwards Rodgers, 48; and Kaiyell Dajour Sanders, 30.
They were placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the case, Henrico County Sheriff Alisa A. Gregory said on Tuesday. They were arrested — each facing one felony charge of second-degree murder — and turned themselves into state police that same day.
The sheriff’s office says it is cooperating with a Virginia State Police investigation into the incident, as well as conducting its own independent review.
“The events of March 6, at their core, represent a tragedy because Mr. Otieno’s life was lost,” Gregory said. “This loss is felt by not only those close to him but our entire community.”
Otieno’s family is being represented by civil rights attorney Mark Krudys, who is also working with Ben Crump on the case. They plan to hold a press conference on Thursday afternoon, after viewing the video of Otieno’s death with his family for the first time.
Krudys tells NPR they expect the video will be made public at some point, likely early next week.
In the meantime, he says he’d like those learning about the case to focus on the person at the center of it.
Otieno’s family, which he describes as close-knit, moved to the U.S. from Kenya when he was 4 years old. He was a standout athlete on his high school basketball and football teams, went to college for some time and was pursuing a career in music.
Krudys says Otieno’s death is devastating not only to his family, but for others in their community, from neighbors to high school friends.
“He’s living a very fruitful, productive, meaningful life that is transforming those around him and he has an overlay of mental health issues that accompany it,” Krudys says, declining to give a specific diagnosis. “This is an episodic thing that comes from time to time, it happens in a lot of folks and it requires love, not the application of force.”
What we know so far: The original incident
Krudys says his team has a lot of questions about what happened to Otieno in the leadup to his death on March 6, but is starting to piece together a picture based on the information they’ve gathered so far.
Otieno was experiencing mental health distress on March 3, which was apparent to his family, and Krudys says he may have “gathered what it sounds like are solar-powered lawn lights” from a neighbor’s yard.
“It was something that we view as a misunderstanding, but the police were called,” he says.
Otieno’s mother was alarmed to see so many officers, including some with “Tasers out and hands on their weapons,” according to Krudys. He says she “draped herself around her son when he was outside and implored the officers not to take any action.”
The Henrico Police said in a statement that officers responded to reports of a possible burglary, along with members of the county’s crisis intervention team. Based on their observations of, and interactions with, Otieno, they placed him under an emergency custody order and transported him to a local hospital for further evaluation.
The police say Otieno then “became physically assaultive” toward the officers, who arrested him and transported him to an area jail, where he was charged with vandalism, disorderly conduct and three counts of assault on law enforcement officers.
Krudys and Baskervill allege that authorities mistreated Otieno during his time in jail. He was naked in his cell in the cold and also got pepper sprayed, with no evidence that anyone washed the chemicals out of his eyes.
“If you’re handcuffed, as he apparently was, and they spray that into your eyes and you’re naked and you’re undergoing a mental health crisis and none of your loved ones are there — it’s a scary situation,” Krudys says.
He adds that Otieno’s mother visited repeatedly to try to bring him his medication, and was told at one point that it would be “a period of time” before he would be able to see a doctor. Krudys says Otieno’s family worried that his condition would deteriorate without his meds.
What we know so far: The hospital transfer
On March 6, Otieno was transported to the Central State Hospital — which Krudys notes is about 45 minutes away, much farther than another hospital about a minute’s drive from the jail — with what Krudys describes as a heavy police presence.
He says seven Henrico deputies accompanied Otieno to the hospital in a Ford Explorer and other vehicles with “sirens and flashers on.”
“I’ve never heard of so many to transport a shackled detainee, but that’s what occurred,” he says, noting that Otieno was wearing both handcuffs and leg irons.
Krudys says once the group got inside, the video — which Baskervill saw and apparently described to him — shows Otieno seated on a chair at one point and then lying on his stomach on the ground, though it’s not clear whether he moved of his own volition.
The roughly 12-minute video shows all seven deputies, who Krudys describes as “fairly large persons,” on top of Otieno.
“The commonwealth’s attorney says all of the defendants were hands-on at one point,” he says. “She said it’s even hard to see Irvo because he’s under the weight of all the sheriff’s deputies.”
The prosecutor’s office said in its statement that the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the hospital at approximately 3:58 p.m. to admit Otieno as a patient. More than three hours later, at 7:28 p.m., Virginia State Police were called to investigate his death.
“State police investigators were told he had become combative during the admission process,” the statement continued. “Otieno, who was physically restrained, died during the intake process.”
Krudys challenges the idea that Otieno was combative, since he was restrained and outnumbered by the deputies and hospital employees surrounding him. He says that’s just one of many questions the family is hoping to answer.
“Our focus is not only on the seven [arrested] but on the Central State Hospital employees that were there and their actions, as well as what happened, for instance at the jail while he was there?” he says. “Why was he naked in the cell, why was he pepper sprayed, why did that all occur to a person that was in a mental health crisis and should not have been thrust into the criminal justice system like he was.”