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7 deputies in Virginia face murder charges in Black man's death at mental hospital

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Authorities in Richmond, Va., have accused police and hospital workers of murder.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Seven sheriff's deputies took a man into custody and then to a mental hospital. He died in the process. The man was Irvo Otieno, and he was Black. The seven officers are of a variety of races. And we want to note there will be detailed accounts of violence in this next conversation.

INSKEEP: Whittney Evans of our member station VPM in Richmond has been following this. Good morning.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Would you talk us through the facts, at least as far as they're known?

EVANS: Yeah. So this all began March 3 when a neighbor called the police to report a potential burglary. The suspect was 28-year-old Irvo Otieno. Officers and mental health crisis workers on the scene recognized this was a mental health situation. And so they took Otieno to a local hospital. But sometime during that visit, the officers say Otieno started acting out and assaulting them. So he was taken to jail and charged with vandalism, assault and disorderly conduct. His mother said he did not have access to his medication while in jail. And after three days, deputies transferred him over to the state hospital, where he died soon after arriving.

INSKEEP: Just so I understand, someone called police because they felt there was maybe a burglary. And I guess his attorney or his family's attorney would say he was just behaving in an unusual manner. Is that right?

EVANS: That's right, yes. His attorney said that - something along the lines of, quote, "he was rearranging solar panels" (ph) in his neighbor's yard.

INSKEEP: What do we know about the cause of death?

EVANS: Just a reminder for listeners, this may be hard to hear graphic details. The medical examiner hasn't ruled on the cause of death yet, but there's surveillance footage, and it hasn't been released to the public. The family and their lawyers were able to view the footage yesterday, however. They described Otieno as being carried lifelessly, handcuffed, wearing leg irons, slumping over and even nude in parts of the video. And they say he was not posing a threat or being violent. His mother, Caroline Ouko, brought her son to the United States from Kenya when he was 4. She told reporters he'd been managing his mental illness for years and had been previously hospitalized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROLINE OUKO: What I saw today was heartbreaking, America. It was disturbing. It was traumatic. My son was tortured.

EVANS: And they say there was a knee on his neck and the weight of multiple people on his body while he was facedown on the floor.

INSKEEP: I guess we should emphasize we're hearing a description of the video. We have not seen the video, but this is a very familiar-sounding description when you hear about a knee on the neck.

EVANS: Right. Attorney Ben Crump thinks so, too. He's representing the family in this case. And you may remember that he also represented the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He says officers and hospital employees had Otieno pinned down for several minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN CRUMP: Why would any law enforcement officer put a knee on the neck of a person who is facedown, handcuffed and restrained? Why would anybody not have enough common sense to say, we've seen this movie before?

INSKEEP: So how are local officials responding then?

EVANS: Well, seven deputies involved have been placed on administrative leave. They, along with three state hospital workers, have all been charged with second-degree murder.

INSKEEP: Whittney, thanks so much.

EVANS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Whittney Evans of our member station VPM in Richmond, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.