Lawyers for the family of a Virginia man who died of asphyxiation after he was pinned to the floor for about 11 minutes while being admitted to a psychiatric hospital have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.
In letter to federal officials that was dated June 26 and made public Wednesday, prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump and Virginia attorney Mark Krudys said the state prosecutor’s office that brought second-degree murder charges against sheriff’s deputies and hospital workers does not have the staff or resources to prosecute the case adequately.
Irvo Otieno, 28, died March 6 as he was being admitted to Central State Hospital. Video from the hospital showed Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and hospital staff attempting to restrain Otieno — who was in handcuffs and leg shackles — for about 20 minutes. For most of that time, Otieno was on the floor being held down by a group that at one point appeared to include 10 people.
Seven deputies and three hospital workers were charged with second-degree murder in Otieno’s death. Former Dinwiddie Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill, whose resignation became effective last week, dropped charges against two of the workers just before her departure.
The family of Otieno, who was Black, has said he was brutally mistreated during a mental health crisis, both at the hospital and while in law enforcement custody for several days before that.
In their letter, lawyers for Otieno’s family said Baskervill’s resignation leaves just two recently hired prosecutors to handle the case as well as all other state prosecutions in the county.
“In our opinion, the newly appointed (Commonwealth’s Attorney) and his similarly new, small staff — with an ample caseload apart from the indictment of Mr. Otieno’s killers — are not adequately prepared to prosecute the eight defendants, all of whom have separate, experienced counsel,” Crump and Krudys wrote.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment. The Justice Department and the Dinwiddie County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
Crump and Krudys also said in their letter that federal civil rights laws prohibiting the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers “are the appropriate vehicle” to address the defendants’ conduct.
“This matter, which implicates important concerns regarding the treatment of the mentally ill, has garnered significant community attention and deserves the thoroughness and competence that can only be dispatched by DOJ agents, AUSAs, and other DOJ employees,” the lawyers wrote.
Krudys said in a phone interview that they are not asking state prosecutors to step aside from the case completely. They want the Dinwiddie Commonwealth Attorney’s Office to prosecute the state murder charges and the Justice Department to bring an excessive force claim, he said.
An autopsy conducted by the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined that the cause of death was asphyxia, while the manner of death was ruled a homicide.
During court hearings and in statements, attorneys for several of the defendants have said Otieno was combative and the deputies were trying to restrain him.