Memories, calls for reform at the funeral of Irvo Otieno

NORTH CHESTERFIELD, Va. (AP) — Family, friends and other mourners gathered at a church in Virginia on Wednesday to remember Irvo Otieno at a memorial service, celebrating his life and calling for mental health care and policing reforms following the death of the 28-year-old black man earlier this month while he was in custody at a state mental hospital.

“He had an illness. He should have been treated and not brutalized,” said civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy.

Other speakers remembered Otieno as a sensitive, energetic, and well-respected friend, teammate, and musical artist during the service at First Baptist Church of South Richmond as they vowed to seek justice for his death.

Otieno, whose family said he had long struggled with a mental illness, died March 6 after being pinned to the ground by sheriff’s deputies and others while he was admitted to Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County . Seven MPs and three hospital workers have been charged with second-degree murder in his death and an investigation is ongoing.

Video released earlier this month shows the sheriff’s deputies and hospital employees holding a handcuffed and shackled Otieno for about 20 minutes after he was forcibly led into a hospital room. Most of the time, Otieno lay on the ground, pinned down by a group so large that it temporarily blocked the camera’s view of him.

Staff, noting he looked limp and lifeless, eventually began resuscitation efforts, video showed. Otieno’s family and their lawyers said he posed no danger and was just trying to breathe.

“You know he couldn’t fight back – he was handcuffed and chained. And if we sound angry, it’s because we are,” Sharpton said.

Dinwiddie Commonwealth Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill said Otieno was choked. An autopsy is still pending.

Otieno, who emigrated from Kenya as a child, spent most of his childhood in the Richmond suburb. He was a “sociable baby, a lively toddler, an energetic child, a fun-loving, athletic teenager and an artistic young man,” according to his funeral program. He was also a high-performing high school athlete who earned an athletic scholarship to attend college.

He was aiming to build a music career, streaming his music under the nickname “Young Vo,” while working to start his own record label, his family said.

Hundreds of mourners attended Wednesday’s service, including friends, family, clergy and representatives from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office. A funeral was scheduled immediately after the service.

Otieno’s family and lawyers said Otieno had mental health issues at the time of his first encounter with law enforcement earlier this month, days before he was taken to the state hospital. He was first taken into custody on March 3 when he was taken to a local hospital for psychiatric treatment under an emergency detention order.

Police said he was “physically assaulted against officers” at the local hospital, after which they arrested him and took him to a local jail, which Otieno’s family said should never have happened as he required treatment. On the afternoon of March 6, he was transferred to the government hospital, which has a department that cares for people admitted from prison or by court order.

lawyers for the accused Defendants in his death said their clients tried to restrain Otieno. During the hearings and in statements, several defense attorneys have attempted to distinguish their clients from the mass of bodies involved in pinning Otieno to the ground. All have been granted bail and pre-trial hearings are scheduled for April or May.

Lawyers for Otieno’s family have denied these characterizations and did so again on Wednesday.

“You deal with the intellectual justification of discrimination,” said civil rights attorney Ben Crump.

Crump, Sharpton and another family attorney, Mark Krudys, called for more robust mental health services and more training for law enforcement in mental health situations. They also said Virginia should consider establishing mental health courts under a system like California’s.

Caroline Ouko, Otieno’s mother, said she could never have imagined what would happen after her son was first taken to the local hospital for treatment.

“We will miss them very much. But rest assured, while you are taking to the skies with your God, you are not physically here with us. But we who are staying, your family, your friends and my team alongside me, we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened to you,” she said, followed by applause.

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