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Mourners will remember man who died during a mental health crisis at a Va. hospital

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than three weeks after Irvo Otieno died during a mental health crisis at a Virginia psychiatric hospital, he will be remembered at a funeral today in Richmond. And here's where I need to tell you that the story will contain detailed descriptions of violence. Otieno died after seven sheriff's deputies and three hospital workers piled on top of him while trying to restrain him. That was on March 6. All 10 have since been charged with second-degree murder. Whittney Evans with member station VPM in Richmond has been following this and is with us now to tell us more.

Whittney, good morning. Thanks for joining us.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What do we expect at the funeral today?

EVANS: It's going to be a public event with some high-profile speakers. Reverend Al Sharpton will be eulogizing Otieno, and attorney Ben Crump will deliver a national call for justice on behalf of Otieno, who, I should mention, was 28 years old when he died. Otieno's family and his attorneys have been vocal throughout this whole process. They've been inviting the media in to tell Otieno's story - who he was, why they believe what happened to him was unjustifiable. We can expect the same openness at this morning's funeral, where there will likely be a lot of cameras and reporters.

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MARTIN: And again, this might be hard to hear, but I'm going to ask you to remind us again about how Otieno died.

EVANS: Sure. Well, the state medical examiner hasn't completed the autopsy report or given an official cause of death, but the local prosecutor has said Otieno was suffocated by the weight of deputies and hospital workers who had pinned him to the floor. He was being admitted to the state psychiatric hospital after a rough few days in police custody. A neighbor had called police to report a burglary because Otieno was allegedly trying to take or rearrange their solar lights. That's unclear.

When sheriff's deputies arrived, they recognized Otieno was in psychological distress, so they took him to a regular hospital under an emergency custody order. But once he was there, deputies say he tried to assault officers, so he was taken to jail. It would be another three days before Otieno would be taken to the psychiatric hospital, but he died before he could be admitted. And I'll just remind you, surveillance videos show deputies bringing him into the admissions room wearing handcuffs and leg irons and then pinning him to the floor for more than 10 minutes.

MARTIN: Now, there have already been court appearances and bond hearings. What's happened during those?

EVANS: Well, all 10 of the defendants have now been granted bond. The amount of bond ranges from between 5,000 and $25,000, some appearing more culpable for Otieno's death than others, the judge said. Their next hearings are scheduled for later this month and in early May.

MARTIN: And I understand, Whittney, that this death has sparked, you know, renewed emphasis in Virginia on how to deal with people in a mental health crisis. What can you tell us about that?

EVANS: Well, this death, as you mentioned, has revived questions about how law enforcement handles people who are having a mental health crisis and whether they should be involved at all. Shortly after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Virginia lawmakers set out to change how police interact with the public, especially those who are in crisis. And they implemented a program called the Marcus Alert. It's named after another Black man in Richmond who was fatally shot by police while experiencing a mental health crisis. And it's supposed to have behavioral health specialists responding to psychiatric emergencies, not police. But it hasn't been implemented in Henrico County yet, so - and that's where it happened, just outside of Richmond. Now they say they hope to have it up by next year, which is perfectly fine by the law. The family is, of course, calling on state officials, including Governor Glenn Youngkin, to do something to prevent this from happening in the future.

MARTIN: That's Whittney Evans with VPM in Richmond. Whittney, thank you.

Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "ANGOLA, LA AND THE 13TH AMENDMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.