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Irvo Otieno's mom wants justice for him and a better system for everyone else

Caroline Ouko, center, and Leon Ochieng, right, the mother and older brother of Irvo Otieno, stand with his casket during his funeral on Wednesday.
Eva Russo
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AP
Caroline Ouko, center, and Leon Ochieng, right, the mother and older brother of Irvo Otieno, stand with his casket during his funeral on Wednesday.

Updated March 31, 2023 at 10:05 AM ET

Community members and loved ones gathered this week to mourn the death of Irvo Otieno, who was killed in custody at a Virginia psychiatric hospital earlier this month.

The 28-year-old Black man died after 10 people piled on top of him for more than 11 minutes during the hospital intake process. Seven Henrico County sheriff's deputies and three Central State hospital employees have since been charged with second-degree murder.

Police took Otieno to a local hospital after his episode of mental health distress on March 3, but brought him to jail after saying he had become "physically assaultive" — a charge his family and their attorneys dispute.

The lawyers, Ben Crump and Mark Krudys, say Otieno experienced a "continuum of abuse" during the next three days, including being pepper-sprayed and left naked in his cell, before authorities took him to the state-run psychiatric facility for reasons they say are not clear.

The case has drawn attention to the way authorities respond to mental health crises, particularly for people of color.

It has spurred calls for Virginia officials to implement new law enforcement and mental health care reforms — including by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who urged them to pass "Irvo's law" in his eulogy at the funeral on Wednesday.

To Otierno's family, the issues are systemic and the tragedy is personal. They want to honor — and bring justice — to the man at the center of it, who they remember as a gifted athlete, prolific musician and deeply loving person.

"My son was a good listener," Caroline Ouko says. "He was not quick to judge or give you an answer. He'd give you time ... He could make you laugh very easily, and then again, he could get serious ... He imparted that gift into me, to be able to look on both sides of the coin."

Ouko says Otieno was a humble man who loved his family and friends and was passionate about making it in the music industry. He released rap songs under the name Young Vo and was working towards starting his own record label.

Their family moved to the U.S. from Kenya when Otieno was 4. Ouko told Morning Edition's A Martínez that she and her son believed in the American dream, and she still does.

"I pray and hope that my home can do better by me and my family," Ouko says. "My son Vo told us one day that 'Mama, we'll be alright. God will not leave us hanging.' And so I'll hold on to that, and I pray that we as a nation can do better."

Ouko holds a portrait of her son outside the Dinwiddie Courthouse in Dinwiddie, Va., on March 16.
Daniel Sangjib Min / AP
/
AP
Ouko holds a portrait of her son outside the Dinwiddie Courthouse in Dinwiddie, Va., on March 16.

What she remembers about that night

Otieno started dealing with mental health struggles after high school, his mom says, and alternated between good stretches — sometimes lasting months or even a year at a time — and periods of distress.

"He had a good doctor looking out for him," Ouko adds. "But sometimes, even with that, he could still go into a place where he needed to be hospitalized."

Otierno was taken into custody on the night March 3, after police were called because he was gathering lights from his neighbor's yard. His family's lawyers have said they showed up with "Tasers out and hands on their weapons." Ouko draped herself around her son and implored officers not to take any action.

They placed him under an emergency custody order and transported him to a local hospital for further evaluation. She followed him there, where she tried several times to see and reassure him, but was denied by the police.

"I didn't leave to drink water, I didn't leave to go even to the restroom," she says, since she didn't want to miss the doctor if he came looking for her. "They didn't give me any particular reasons why I couldn't see him. And that is what really hurt me."

Instead, law enforcement took him to jail. Ouko challenges their description of him as physically assaultive, noting at one point the doctor said he had slept for 40 minutes.

Crump tells Morning Edition that Otieno should have been allowed to stay in the hospital longer.

If he hadn't been taken to jail, he says, there would have been "a far different outcome than the one we witnessed on that videotape."

Authorities should have treated Otieno's case as a medical issue, not a criminal one, he adds.

"There is a propensity in America that when Black people are having mental health issues, it becomes a determining factor whether they live or die, based on the color of their skin," Crump says. "It happens far too often in America."

What she hopes will come from this

Ouko says she would like to see those involved in her son's death held accountable.

"I pray and hope that anyone along the way ... that contributed, that never stepped up to do the right thing, and eventually those ones that held my son down and literally suffocated and choked the life out of him, I hope that they can be prosecuted and put away in jail so they don't live to do this to anybody else," she says.

The 10 suspects in the case are all out on bail, with hearings scheduled to begin in late April and early May, VPM's Ben Paviour reports.

He told All Things Considered that some of the lawyers for those charged have attempted to distance themselves from what happened, arguing their clients didn't know how severe the situation was and just wanted to help restrain an unruly patient.

Otieno's family and lawyers have said he looked "almost lifeless" when he entered the room, and hospital surveillance footage shows him being carried in while restrained with handcuffs and leg irons.

"He was on his face, restrained in a prone position with approximately 1,000 pounds or more on top of him for not one minute, not two minutes, not three minutes ... but almost 12 minutes," Crump says.

Ouko says the way her son was treated — "they killed him and they didn't think twice about it" — raises questions about the systems at play and concerns that something like this could happen again.

That's why she and Crump are speaking out about the need for municipal, state and federal reforms in mental health and law enforcement. They'd especially like to see mental health courts come to Virginia, and for a change in what Crump calls the court of public opinion.

Most people have a loved one dealing with mental health issues, he says, urging them to demand accountability for how they are treated.

"My son could not be saved," Ouko says. "But it should never happen to anybody else's child who will be going through mental distress, going to ask for help. Or anyone else."

The audio interview was produced by Taylor Haney and edited by Amra Pasic.

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

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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