A Police Killing Inside a Hospital: Ben Crump on Death of Irvo Otieno During Mental Health Crisis
Written by GRB on 23/03/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: A warning to our audience: This story contains images and descriptions of police violence.
We begin today’s show looking at the death of Irvo Otieno, a 28-year-old Black man and aspiring musician who was killed March 6th inside a hospital in Virginia, where he had been taken to receive mental health treatment. Shocking video released this week shows seven sheriff’s deputies and three hospital workers violently pinned Irvo Otieno to the hospital floor and piled on him for more than 11 minutes, suffocating him. Earlier this week, a Virginia grand jury indicted the 10 men involved on second-degree murder charges.
Otieno’s death occurred at Central State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. New video released Wednesday reveals at least one officer had also repeatedly punched Irvo earlier that day when a group of them rushed into his cell, his jail cell. When the officers carried Otieno out of the cell, he was no longer moving. They put his limp body in a van to transport him to the hospital, where he died after being pinned to the ground by the seven sheriff’s deputies and three hospital workers.
Irvo Otieno was an aspiring musician who suffered from mental health challenges. He had been taken from his home and locked up three days before he was killed, after a neighbor called police to report he had walked onto their property and had taken some lights and was banging on the front door.
This is Irvo Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, who moved to Virginia with her family from Kenya in the ’90s.
CAROLINE OUKO: Even though Irvo was going through mental illness, what I saw today — what I saw today was heartbreaking, America. It was disturbing. It was traumatic. My son was tortured, to put it right. I saw the torture. There is no way that Henrico County sheriff deputies were on him, seven people, seven officers, on one man. And all this started when my son went to hospital on the 3rd. And that evening, he was taken to jail, raced from the back of the jail into the hospital. Those three days at Henrico County Jail were horror. I’ve seen it on video, and I think there’s some more. But I’m here to mourn. And I’m mourning the life of this young man, my son. Mental illness should not be your ticket to death.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Amen.
CAROLINE OUKO: There was a chance to rescue him. There was a chance to stop what was going on. And I don’t understand how all systems failed him. I don’t understand why one single system could not hold up and say, “Stop. We stop here.” My son was treated like a dog, worse than a dog. I saw it with my own eyes on the video.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Caroline Ouko, the mother of Irvo Otieno, who was killed by seven sheriff’s deputies and three hospital workers inside a mental health facility in Virginia March 6th.
We go now to civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Irvo’s family.
Ben, welcome back to Democracy Now! This horrific story continues to unfold because more and more video has been released. Tell us what happened on March 6th, especially with the latest video that’s hours before what we had seen, and what the family is calling for right now. How did this happen to Irvo?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Thank you for having me, Amy.
And there is more video to be released that is equally disturbing that has not been released to the public, that the family and our legal team have been able to review.
On March 6th, Irvo Otieno was having a mental health crisis, Amy. And regrettably, like so many other Black people in America who have mental health issues, they aren’t treated like medical issues. They’re treated like criminal issues. And many times, when they are confronted by the police, these mental health issues leads to them being sentenced to death, like we saw in this disturbing video of Irvo.
I mean, he was in a mental hospital, for God’s sakes. Isn’t it foreseeable that people who have mental health issues and are in crisis, and they’re in the hospital, that they’re going to have situations where they have crisis? And so, they should be able to deal with them without the person being killed.
And when you look at the video, he was handcuffed at his wrists. He had leg irons on his ankles. And so, he posed no threat to anyone, not himself, not to the officers or hospital staff. You look at the video, his body seemed lifeless when they dragged him to the car, and certainly when they dragged him into the room where we witnessed him being face down and seven sheriff’s deputies from Henrico County and three security guards from the medical facility all piled on top of him, all put the brunt of their weight on him, put their knees on his back, on his neck, not for a few minutes but for almost 12 minutes. And as the prosecutor said, Amy, when she charged them with second-degree murder, they literally smothered him to death. And that is tragic, when you think about he committed no crime. He was there because he had —
AMY GOODMAN: Let me just play, Ben —
BENJAMIN CRUMP: — mental health issues.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play the Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill speaking during one of the first hearings last week for the seven deputies charged in the death of Irvo Otieno.
ANN CABELL BASKERVILL: He was held down on the ground, prone on the ground, for 12 minutes by all seven of our defendants charged here, including this one, so much so that they smothered him, and they smothered him to the death. … It is the defendant’s position that the victim in this case was agitated and combative towards — they have all used. There is video footage of exactly what happened, and he was not agitated and combative.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is key, Ben. The Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s attorney said he was not combative.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yeah, and on the video, Amy — the one good thing about video — and thank God for the advent of technology, because for decades Black people would say that the police are brutalizing us, that they’re engaged in excessive force, and people would always believe the police word. They would take the police narrative. But now with video, you can see for yourself what happened. And there is no video that we have seen that shows Irvo being combative or posing a threat to anybody. They’re saying, “Take our word for it.” And even irrespective, Amy, if he did something at some point during his crisis, we clearly see on the video that has been released to the public that never was Irvo posing a threat.
I mean, when you think about it, I got so many calls from all across America, across the world, saying, “Why?” This is so unnecessary. He’s handcuffed and shackled. If they just leave him in the room and wait for him to get proper medical attention, then who’s at harm? Why do you have to put him face down? Why do you have to put knees in his back? Why do you have to smother him to death? It is — it’s just so unnecessary, as many of these deaths. And three years after George Floyd, why would police or law enforcement officials be putting their knees anywhere on a restrained person who is face down?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Absolutely, Ben Crump. And if you could explain — I mean, what’s especially shocking and horrifying about this incident is, of course, that it takes place in a hospital, and that, too, in a mental hospital, where, presumably, the medical staff is accustomed to dealing with people, even — in this case, he’s not even combative. But even if he were, what would justify, in a facility like this, the police, together with medical staff, actively, in fact, murdering one of their patients?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: There is nothing that would justify it. In fact, what is equally troubling is that you have so many people standing around, and nobody intervenes. We remember on Tyre Nichols’ tragic killing in Memphis, Tennessee, that was one of the preeminent issues that none of those police officers intervened while they were watching a young man be beat to death, be tortured. And so, you see those similar issues here in Richmond, Virginia, where nobody intervened, not the medical staff, not any of the security, anybody there. They simply watched.
And can you imagine setting your stopwatch for 12 minutes, and just think about how much time goes into 12 minutes, how many seconds, and the fact that Irvo can’t breathe? They’re saying that, well, he was still moving when they had him on the ground. Our experts opine, absolutely, you would be moving, too, if you’re face down, restrained, and you’ve got 10 people on top of you for 12 minutes. If you’re struggling, you’re trying to move so you can get air. And that’s what was denied to Irvo, his opportunity to breathe. And that’s what is very disturbing, that the medical personnel, who are trained on how to preserve life, could not recognize that Irvo needed somebody to intervene to give him the benefit of the doubt, the benefit of their professionalism, and, mostly, the benefit of humanity.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ben, could you talk about this specific hospital where he was held and where this incident occurred? It has a —
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Go ahead.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yeah, it has — as my co-counsel Mark Krudys and I have been researching with our legal team, this certainly isn’t the first incident where patients who have been, I guess, dealing with mental health crises have been abused, in the sense that other Black people have alleged that police used excessive force against them. And, you know, they come up with all kind of things to try to justify the cause of death, but I believe, as other families have alleged, their family members were killed because of an overdose of excessive force.
And so, we have to use this as an opportunity to deal with the issues of mental health in America. We need legislation. We need policies to try to prevent any more Irvos. You know, President Biden, a couple days ago, had the television cast of Ted Lasso, the award-winning show, at the White House to talk about the importance of mental health. Well, it is my fervent hope that they would have engaged with Black people who have mental health issues, to say that we need to treat those important, as well, and not as criminal issues, because we saw it in Pam Turner in Houston, Texas, a Black woman having a mental health crisis, and the police end up shooting her in the face, in the chest and in the stomach, while she’s laying on the ground on her back. And that video is horrific. And then we see Gershun Freeman in Memphis, Tennessee, Shelby County Jail, who is beat to death while he’s naked in the jail having a mental health crisis.
And so, what happened to Irvo isn’t an isolated incident in America. When you’re Black in America and you have a mental health crisis, too often the determining factor of whether you live or die becomes the color of your skin and the status of your mental health. And that should not be the case.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben, I want to go back to Irvo’s mother, Caroline Ouko.
CAROLINE OUKO: This young man you see here had a big heart. Irvo was the guy that his classmates drew to when they needed someone to talk to. He was a listener. He would take time to listen to them. And then he would take time to process and then lean back in. My son was a leader; he was not a follower. He also brought a different perspective to the table. If there was a discussion, he was not afraid to go the other way when everybody else is following. This is my baby. He cared for people. He cared that people were treated right.
AMY GOODMAN: It is so horrifying to meet, all too often, young Black men after their death, with their mothers or sisters or partners describing who they were. Ben Crump, as we wrap up, the pile-on was more than 11 minutes. In the case of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd, it was nine-and-a-half minutes. At this point, what are you demanding?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: We’re demanding —
AMY GOODMAN: And also, can you talk about the fact that the defense attorneys have called for holding Irvo’s body — it could be weeks — something that the judge ruled against yesterday?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yeah, you know, it is god-awful that this family is having to grieve the death of an unnecessary, unjustifiable and unconstitutional killing of their loved one, but it is insult on top of injury to say that they are going to be prevented for possibly weeks at having the funeral services for Irvo because these defense attorneys are arguing that they have a right to do an autopsy or some independent autopsy from their choosing. Well, you know, it’s disturbing. They have video. I mean, there’s no question what killed him. The medical examiner has done the autopsy. They will have the benefit of having all the slides and the reports from that autopsy. But to try to hold up his funeral is disturbing, especially for this family. Can you imagine your loved one being killed by the people who are supposed to protect and serve him, but then they are trying to say you can’t have the funeral for another month?
I mean, we can’t allow that to happen. And I pray that the judge will not allow that to happen, because what we need is, just like the police chief said in Memphis, Tennessee, when you see a tragedy like this, an injustice like this, a crime committed like this, on video, the community needs to see us moving swiftly. We need to move swiftly towards justice, because justice delayed is justice denied.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Crump, we want to thank you very much for being with us. I believe the judge did rule against the defense request to hold the body of Irvo, saying a corpse “is not a T-shirt” or something else that can be easily stored. Ben Crump, civil rights attorney representing the family of Irvo Otieno.
Coming up, we speak to the Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, author of the new book, A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War. Stay with us.