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7 deputies and 3 others face murder charges in a Black man's death at mental hospital

Charged with second-degree murder in the death of Irvo Noel Otieno were: <strong>(top row, from left)</strong> Henrico County Sheriff's Deputies Bradley Disse, Brandon Rodgers, Dwayne Bramble, Tabitha Levere, Jermaine Branch <strong>(bottom row, from left)</strong>, Kaiyell Sanders and Randy Boyer, Central State Hospital workers Darian Blackwell, Sadarius Williams and Wavie Jones.
Meherrin River Regional Jail
Charged with second-degree murder in the death of Irvo Noel Otieno were: (top row, from left) Henrico County Sheriff's Deputies Bradley Disse, Brandon Rodgers, Dwayne Bramble, Tabitha Levere, Jermaine Branch (bottom row, from left), Kaiyell Sanders and Randy Boyer, Central State Hospital workers Darian Blackwell, Sadarius Williams and Wavie Jones.

Updated March 17, 2023 at 11:49 AM ET

Editor's note: This story includes detailed descriptions of violence.

A Virginia prosecutor has charged seven law enforcement officers and three hospital employees with second-degree murder over the death of a Black man at a state psychiatric hospital last week.

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."

The S.T.A.R. Center, at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, Va., pictured in 2018.
Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP
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Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP
The S.T.A.R. Center, at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, Va., pictured in 2018.

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 Gregory said on Tuesday. They were arrested — each facing one felony charge of second-degree murder — and turned themselves in to state police that same day.

On Thursday, Baskervill's office said three employees of Central State Hospital had also been charged with second-degree murder in the case, bringing the total number of arrests to 10. It is not clear what jobs they held at the facility. They are Darian M. Blackwell, 23; Wavie L. Jones, 34, and Sadarius D. Williams, 27.

Baskervill said Thursday that the case will go before a grand jury next week "for a final determination of charges going forward."

"The criminal information warrants are based on the evidence collected, analyzed and evaluated to-date," she added. "A key element of that evidence is the surveillance video from Central State Hospital that captures the intake process."

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.

Otieno's family is being represented by civil rights attorneys Mark Krudys and Ben Crump, who saw the hospital surveillance footage for the first time on Thursday.

At a news conference that afternoon, the attorneys detailed what they called a "continuum of abuse" Otieno faced from the moment he was taken into custody.

They say the U.S. Department of Justice should intervene, arguing that the case spans multiple jurisdictions and involves violation of Otieno's constitutional rights. Otieno's family members and their lawyers called for answers and justice in his case, as well as broader reforms to stop something similar from playing out again.

"Mental illness should not be your ticket to death," said Otieno's mother, Caroline Ouko, noting that mental health is on the decline across the country, exacerbated by the pandemic. "My son was treated like a dog — worse than a dog — I saw it with my own eyes on the video. He was treated inhumanely, and it was traumatic and it was systematic."

Before the press conference, Krudys told NPR that they expect the video of Otieno's death will be made public at some point, likely early next week — though Baskervill said on Thursday that "to maintain the integrity of the criminal justice process at this point, I am not able to publicly release the video."

In the meantime, Krudys said he'd like those learning about the case to focus on the person at the center of it.

Otieno's family, which he described 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 in California for some time and was pursuing a career in hip-hop.

"Irvo loved sports, music and the beach," his older brother Leon Ochieng wrote in a GoFundMe raising money for his funeral. "He often said he wanted to be great one day and help our village in Kenya with their needs."

Ouko said her son was "as American as apple pie" and had a big heart. He was a good listener who classmates sought out when they needed someone to talk to and a leader who wasn't afraid to bring a different perspective to the table.

She said Otieno had "found his thing" in hip-hop, could write a song in five minutes and was even working toward starting his own record label. She urged people to look up his music on Apple Music and Spotify, adding, "There is goodness in his music and that's all I'm left with now — he's gone."

Krudys said 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 said, 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 told NPR 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 said.

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.

Otieno's mother was alarmed to see so many officers, including some with "Tasers out and hands on their weapons," according to Krudys. He said Ouko "draped herself around her son when he was outside and implored the officers not to take any action."

That was the last time she saw her son alive in person, Crump said.

Ouko said she followed him to the hospital and tried unsuccessfully four times to see him. The doctor treating him told her he was going to be all right, and that he was relaxed enough that he had slept for some 40 minutes, she added.

But police say Otieno "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.

Otieno's family and their lawyers say they do not understand why he was taken to jail, noting that generally even people who are charged with a crime are allowed to stay at the hospital for 72 hours.

Ouku asked the doctor if he could let her see her son before he was taken away, but, as she put it, "He threw his hands up in desperation and told me 'It's the police.'"

What we know so far: Days in jail

The commonwealth's attorney and the family's lawyers allege that authorities mistreated Otieno 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 said.

He added 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 said Otieno's family worried that his condition would deteriorate without his meds.

At the news conference, family members said he was treated "in a subhuman manner," and that video of his transfer out of jail showed him "stark naked" in a small cell with feces on the floor.

Krudys said five deputies entered the cell — which was essentially a metal bed against a hard wall — and handled him so forcefully that Otieno's mother, while watching the video, was worried that he'd suffered a head injury in the process.

He added that the deputies handcuffed Otieno before carrying him out by the arms and legs, "like an animal," into the vehicle to take him to the hospital.

What we know so far: The hospital intake

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 described as a heavy police presence.

He said 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 said, noting that Otieno was wearing both handcuffs and leg irons.

Citing surveillance video from the hospital, the lawyers said Otieno appears "almost lifeless" when he first enters the room, and is seated on a chair. At one point officers can be seen pushing him down onto the ground and pulling his hair, they said.

Crump said the surveillance video did not include audio, and there was no police bodycam footage either.

"You see in the majority part 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, the weight of seven individuals on his body, while he's face-down, handcuffed, with leg irons, and you say 'My God, why,' " Crump said.

Crump said he saw the deputies "pile on top of" Otieno in that position for five to six minutes, before turning him over and getting back on top of him again for a comparable length of time.

"It's really difficult to actually see him because throughout the duration there are officers over every single part of him pushing down hard, relentlessly, unyieldingly, for the duration of 11 minutes," Krudys said.

The lawyers said none of the people in the room intervened during that time and that there was "an appreciable period of time before any rescue efforts are started."

"You see people standing around with their hands in their pockets and looking away," Krudys said, adding that while CPR was being administered "you see deputies drift away out of the room and into a conversation by themselves."

He also said that Virginia State Police were only called hours later, missing an opportunity for them to have a potentially valuable conversation with the people in the room about what had just happened.

The Henrico County Sheriff's Office arrived at the hospital at approximately 3:58 p.m. to admit Otieno as a patient, the prosecutor's office said in its statement. Virginia State Police were called to investigate his death at 7:28 p.m., more than three hours later.

"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."

Otieno's family and lawyers vehemently dispute that he was combative, based on the video evidence of his condition, the fact that both his arms and legs were restrained and how outnumbered he was by the deputies and other employees surrounding him.

"I'm so happy you don't have to rely on an interpretation from law enforcement officials, as so many people have had to do," Crump said. "We have ocular proof of what we are telling you, visual evidence of how they treated this young man who was posing no threat to them."

A call for justice and systemic change

While Otieno's family and their lawyers said they are looking for justice and answers in his case, they said they are also speaking out in the hopes that there won't be others like it in the future.

Crump, who is known for representing the families of many victims of high-profile police killing, stressed that Otieno's experience didn't happen in a vacuum. In fact, the attorney said, it bears some similarities to other recent tragedies.

"When we think of the tragic killing of George Floyd, you say why would ... any law enforcement officer put a knee on the neck of a person who is face-down, handcuffed and restrained?" he asked. "Why would anybody not have enough common sense to say 'We've seen this movie before?' "

Those speaking at the news conference said they kept asking the same question over and over as they watched the footage: Why was he treated this way?

Crump says it's important to get answers, not only for Otieno but for the next person in America who is experiencing a mental health crisis.

"What we just viewed on the videos leading to the death of Irvo was 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 said.

America has a pattern of treating people who have mental health issues "like hardened criminals," Crump said.

"We are better than this," he added, and have to change laws to prevent anyone else's children from going through the same thing.

Ochieng, Otieno's brother, said every family in America dealing with mental illness should be able to feel confident calling for help when they need it, and believe that systems like law enforcement and local government are "focused on preserving your life and not ending it."

Ouko agreed, asking whether there can be more specialized mobile response teams trained to help people in distress, which she had wanted for her son.

"I do not wish this on anyone else," she said. "I do not wish this on anyone's child or any parent or anyone else. We can do better."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 16, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline and version of this story incorrectly said 10 deputies were arrested in connection with Irvo Noel Otieno's death. In fact, seven were deputies and three were hospital employees.
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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.