Seven sheriff’s deputies in Virginia have been charged with second-degree murder in the death of a Black man with a history of mental illness who died after the officers smothered him as he lay on the ground in handcuffs and leg shackles at a hospital, his family’s lawyer and a county prosecutor said on Wednesday.
The man, Irvo Otieno, 28, of Henrico County, Va., whose family emigrated from Kenya when he was 4 years old, appeared to have died from asphyxiation, or oxygen deficiency, on March 6 at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, his family’s lawyer, Mark Krudys, said in an interview. His family says Mr. Otieno was deprived of medication while in jail that he needed for his mental illness.
The seven deputies from the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office “have been placed on administrative leave” until the case is closed, Sheriff Alisa Gregory of Henrico County said in a statement.
“The events of March 6, at their core, represent a tragedy because Mr. Otieno’s life was lost,” Sheriff Gregory said, noting that her office was cooperating with the investigation of the Virginia State Police.
The Dinwiddie County prosecutor, Ann Cabell Baskervill, said in court on Wednesday that Mr. Otieno had suffocated from the weight of the seven deputies smothering him, CBS 6 News reported.
“There is video footage of exactly what happened and he was not agitated and combative,” Ms. Baskervill said of Mr. Otieno. “He was held down on the ground, pinned on the ground for 12 minutes by all seven of our defendants charged here.”
She did not immediately respond to emails and calls seeking comment on Wednesday.
The authorities have identified the deputies involved as Randy Joseph Boyer, 57, of Henrico; Dwayne Alan Bramble, 37, of Sandston; Jermaine Lavar Branch, 45, of Henrico; Bradley Thomas Disse, 43, of Henrico; Tabitha Renee Levere, 50, of Henrico; Brandon Edwards Rodgers, 48, of Henrico; and Kaiyell Dajour Sanders, 30, of North Chesterfield.
Court records did not list the names of lawyers representing some of the deputies. The records show that court hearings were scheduled on Wednesday to appoint lawyers for some of them.
Cary Bowen, who is representing Mr. Branch and did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment, told reporters outside the courthouse in Dinwiddie County on Wednesday that the prosecutor “has taken a very aggressive position here, and it’s pretty unusual to go about things the way it’s been done,” ABC 8 News reported.
Mr. Bowen added in court that the deputies had struggled to restrain Mr. Otieno, whom he described as “physically very robust” and as having a history of mental health struggles.
The Henrico Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, the local police union, said on Facebook that while the death of Mr. Otieno was tragic, “we also stand behind the seven accused deputies.” The organization also emphasized that the Virginia State Police had not yet finished its investigation, and that the medical examiner had not released a cause of death as of Wednesday.
“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,” the union said.
The medical examiner’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Wednesday night.
The case is the latest example of an encounter between law enforcement and a person with a mental illness that ended in violence or death. According to a Washington Post database that tracks police shootings in the United States, 21 percent of people killed by law enforcement since 2015 had a known metal illness.
The death of Mr. Otieno also came as law enforcement agencies across the country face increasing scrutiny over arrests that have turned deadly. Earlier this year, Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man pulled over in a traffic stop, was beaten by Memphis police officers for roughly three minutes on the evening of Jan. 7, and died three days later.
Mr. Otieno was a well-known athlete growing up in Henrico, Mr. Krudys said, and began having mental health struggles as a young adult.
Mr. Krudys declined to share more details about Mr. Otieno’s mental health condition.
On March 3, Mr. Otieno appeared to be experiencing mental health distress and walked to a neighbor’s lawn, where he picked up some solar-powered lights laid out on the property, Mr. Krudys said.
A neighbor called the Henrico Police Department, whose officers placed Mr. Otieno under an emergency custody order before taking him to a hospital “for further evaluation,” the police said in a statement.
At the hospital, police said last week, Mr. Otieno was “physically assaultive” toward officers, who arrested him, took him to the Henrico County Jail and charged him with three counts of assault on a law enforcement officer and one count each of disorderly conduct in a hospital and vandalism.
Mr. Otieno’s family disputes that he was violent at the hospital.
While in jail, Mr. Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, tried to bring him medication for his mental illness, though officials initially would not allow her to drop it off, Mr. Krudys said. Later, the jail accepted one medication, he added. Officials at the jail told her that Mr. Otieno would see a doctor in a few days, he said.
“The more time that passes without you getting your meds,” Mr. Krudys said, “the more distressed you become.”
On March 6, Mr. Otieno was taken from the jail to the state hospital, where, the prosecutor said, the deputies smothered him.
Mr. Krudys said that he was continuing to gather details about what had occurred while Mr. Otieno was detained.
“I mean, it’s a very harsh treatment for somebody that’s obviously in a very confused state,” Mr. Otieno said of the deputies’ actions.
It’s unclear what prompted the struggle between the deputies and Mr. Otieno on March 6 at the state hospital, Mr. Krudys said, but footage inside the building appears to have captured the encounter.
That footage has not been released, and the Virginia Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, which oversees the state-run hospital in Dinwiddie County, did not respond to calls seeking comment on Wednesday night.
Mr. Otieno’s family plans to see the video for the first time on Thursday, Mr. Krudys said. Ben Crump, the lawyer representing the family of Mr. Nichols, will be at a news conference attended by the family.