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A grand jury indicts 10 people in a man's death at a hospital while in police custody

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A grand jury in Virginia today indicted seven sheriff's deputies and three hospital staff members of second-degree murder in the death of Irvo Otieno. He died March 6 at the Central State Hospital just south of Richmond, as he was being restrained. And a warning - this story will include details of how he died at the hands of police officers. Whittney Evans of member station VPM has been following this case and joins us now. Hi, Whittney.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So can you just remind us what exactly happened to Otieno?

EVANS: Right. So Otieno was in the custody of seven sheriff's deputies who were admitting him to the state mental hospital earlier this month. Three days earlier, one of Otieno's neighbors had called the police to report a potential burglary. When sheriff's deputies arrived, it was clear that he was suffering some sort of mental health crisis. So they took him first to a regular hospital on an emergency custody order. They said he'd become combative there and assaulted deputies. So they then charged him and took him to jail. When they finally brought him into the state hospital for evaluation, a video shows sheriff's deputies and hospital workers were piling on to Otieno, who has - who was handcuffed and shackled at the ankles. You can't see much movement from Otieno. All you see is him being dragged into the hospital admissions room and then a group of people holding him down.

CHANG: Right. And towards the end of that video, it appears deputies are trying to revive Otieno. Do we know precisely how he died?

EVANS: Not yet. The official cause of death hasn't been confirmed. But the prosecutor in this case has said she thinks Otieno died from asphyxiation due to the weight of the deputies on his body. And you'll see in the video, which The Washington Post published late last night, that Otieno is barely visible because his entire body is covered. He doesn't appear to be fighting back or even struggling. He makes very little motion, but he's eventually just lifeless. The video has no audio, so we have no idea what's being said while the deputies and hospital staff pile on him. Other hospital workers were just standing around watching, occasionally jumping in to help restrain him. However, again, he's already pinned to the floor, shackled and handcuffed.

CHANG: Right. Well, what about the officers and hospital workers in this case? Like, what are they saying in their defense?

EVANS: We're getting very little information from the defense right now about the facts of the case or what they'll be arguing. But we did hear from one of the attorneys today. He's asked the judge to seal evidence moving forward to protect the integrity of the case. And he wants to make sure evidence like that video that The Post leaked doesn't go public again. Here's Doug Ramseur, who represents one of the Central State Hospital employees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG RAMSEUR: I think everyone wants to make sure that this case gets tried fairly for all sides, in a courtroom where it's supposed to happen that way. We don't want people to make up their own minds through a viewing of evidence that isn't with the right lens or the right filter or because there's been comments that have been inflammatory. Because they may be affected by the way they've seen other things.

EVANS: Now, the local Fraternal Order of Police extended their condolences to Otieno's family, but the group has publicly stated it supports the deputies and their defense. Its members are also fundraising from their Facebook page to support the deputies' families.

CHANG: What about Otieno's family? Like, how have they responded to all of this?

EVANS: They held a press conference on Monday with their attorneys after they'd watched the video. It was before it had gone public. They were completely shocked, kept asking why this had to happen. Otieno's mother said they treated her son as if he were less than human, as if he were a dog. She spoke to the strong ties the family has to the community, how Otieno was brought to Virginia as a 4-year-old from Kenya. Otieno's brother was in town visiting. He said what he saw in that footage was a homicide.

CHANG: That is Whittney Evans with VPM in Richmond. Thank you so much, Whittney.

EVANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.