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."
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.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
We turn now to a story that we want to warn will have graphic and disturbing descriptions of violence. It's about a 28-year-old Black man who died in a psychiatric hospital in Virginia after 10 people piled on top of him for more than 11 minutes. Seven sheriff's deputies and three hospital workers have been charged with second-degree murder. Family and friends remembered Irvo Otieno at a funeral this week. I spoke with his mom, Caroline Ouko, along with attorney Ben Crump, and I started by asking her to tell us about some of the things about her son that made her smile, the things she loved the most.
CAROLINE OUKO: My son was a good listener. And he was not quick to judge or, you know, give you an answer. He'd give you time. He imparted that gift into me to be able to look on both sides of the coin. And he loved - loved - his family.
MARTÍNEZ: What was he passionate about?
OUKO: He was passionate about his music. He believed that he was going to make it big in the music industry, and he worked hard towards that.
MARTÍNEZ: Caroline, as much as you're willing to share with us, can you tell us about your son's mental struggles?
OUKO: Irvo had his mental struggles and throughout school, throughout high school, he was fine. You know, all this didn't show up. It showed up later. And he had stretches of good days and months, you know, even into a year and over. And then he had periods, you know, where he could go into distress, like on the day when he unfortunately was killed. So he was living with mental disease, was under a doctor's care. He had a good doctor looking out for him. But sometimes, even with that, he could still go into a place where he needed to be hospitalized.
MARTÍNEZ: Ben Crump, what's your understanding of what was happening with Irvo when he was first dealing and encountered police?
BEN CRUMP: The understanding clearly is that Miss Caroline had told them that he was having a mental health crisis when they showed up. There's nothing that has been presented to us to justify the excessive use of force that they leveled on this young Black man who was having a mental health crisis. 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. It happens far too often in America.
MARTÍNEZ: What do you think could have been done differently right off the bat?
CRUMP: Well, certainly, had he been allowed to stay in the medical facility versus being taken to the jail, we think would have had a far different outcome than the one we witnessed on that videotape.
MARTÍNEZ: Caroline, when your son was taken to a local hospital for evaluation, what was your understanding about what was going to be done?
OUKO: When my son was taken to Henrico Doctors' Hospital, my understanding was he was going to get the care that he needed and that the doctor there was going to be able to treat him in the hospital, protect him and keep him safe and get him well and return him back home to me.
MARTÍNEZ: Now, at the hospital, police say that your son was "physically assaultive" - that's the quote - toward the officers, who then arrested him and then took him to the county jail. Does that sound like something that you believe, Caroline, that happened to your son?
OUKO: I do not believe that because I was right there sitting at the hospital reception. I followed my son. I followed them and sat at the reception. I didn't leave to drink water. I didn't leave to go even to the restroom because I was concerned that if the doctor came out looking for me, I wanted him to find me. They barred me from seeing him, and I asked them why. They didn't give me any particular reasons why I couldn't see him. That is what really hurt me. And I wanted to be back there to try and give him peace of mind. And they refused me.
MARTÍNEZ: Caroline, what does - and nothing gets your son back. I understand that. But what does justice look like for you right now?
OUKO: For me, I pray that anyone that contributed that never stepped up to do the right thing and eventually those ones that held my son down and literally suffocated him and choked the life out of him, I hope they can be prosecuted and put away in jail so they don't leave to do this to anybody else.
MARTÍNEZ: I know that you immigrated from Kenya, like countless other families have come from around the world to come to the United States compelled by the American dream.
MARTÍNEZ: Where does that dream stand for you right now?
OUKO: And that was the dream that pushed me to a land where, you know, we could make it possible, to a land that is welcoming, that has opened her arms to many. I believed in the American dream. My son Irvo believed in the American dream. This is home for us. I pray and hope that my home can do better by me and my family. My son Vo told us one day, Mama, you know, we'll be all right. 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.
MARTÍNEZ: That is Caroline Ouko, the mother of Irvo Otieno, and attorney Ben Crump. My thanks to you both.
OUKO: Thank you so much for having us.
CRUMP: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.