CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — The life of Irvo Otieno was celebrated Wednesday with family, friends and other mourners remembering him as an empathic, gentle and brilliant artist who “everybody loved.”
The memorial service at First Baptist Church of South Richmond included several speakers and a video tribute featuring a song from Otieno with photos of him as a child, with family and friends, at graduation and his basketball team photos.
Leon Ochieng, Otieno’s older brother, called Otieno “the big brother” he didn’t have, saying he was “slow to anger” and “quick to forgive.” He and other family members spoke about how the impact of Otieno’s death was felt in Kenya, where Otieno and his family emigrated from when he was young.
Allan-Charles Chipman, a friend who made a heartful tribute Wednesday, called Otieno a “brilliant and prolific artist.” Chipman said he helped Otieno, who rapped under the artist name “Young Vo,” record one of his first songs.
But the events surrounding Otieno’s final days and death while in the custody of Henrico sheriff’s deputies were unavoidable during Wednesday’s service. Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy, and others called for changes in how those with mental illnesses are treated.
Otieno, a 28-year-old Black man, died on March 6 after he was pinned down by deputies and others while he was being admitted to Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie. Seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and three Central State Hospital personnel face second-degree murder charges in his death.
Caroline Ouko, Otieno’s mother, called Wednesday’s service her “opportunity to say goodbye” to her son, telling him she was “sorry.”
“When I took my son to the hospital, this is not what I envisioned,” Ouko said. “I didn’t think my son was not coming home. But son, this is where we are, and I’m sorry.”
Surveillance video at Virginia’s Central State Hospital shows Otieno being dragged into the hospital on March 6, then restrained and pressed to the floor in a hospital admissions room by many as 10 sheriff’s deputies and hospital personnel.
A handcuffed and shackled Otieno was held to the ground for over 11 minutes until he was motionless. The footage then shows unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate him after his body goes limp.
Otieno was admitted to the mental hospital after he was placed under an emergency custody order by law enforcement on March 3. Dinwiddie Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill has said Otieno was suffocated to death — officially known as asphyxiation — but an autopsy report has yet to be finalized.
Rev. Sharpton called for an “Irvo Law” to help bolster mental health services in Virginia and improve the treatment of those experiencing mental health issues. “The disgrace was not that Irvo had mental illness,” Rev. Sharpton said during Otieno’s eulogy. “The disgrace is how you treated Irvo.”
Sharpton had strong words for Gov. Glenn Youngkin during the eulogy, saying that he can’t run for president “if he can’t explain his policies on the mentally challenged.” But Sharpton said he wasn’t there to attack the governor but “to challenge him.”
Youngkin, who has pushed for $230 million in mental health funding to be added to the state budget, was not at Wednesday’s service but sent two members of his administration to attend.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the governor said Youngkin “continues to lift up the Otieno family in prayer as they remember their son on this sad day.”
“The Governor remains steadfast that we must get to a place in the commonwealth where people in need of mental health services are met pre-crisis,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in the statement. “He’s committed to transformative changes in Virginia’s behavioral health system so that all Virginians can receive the help they need when they need it.”
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, one of the lawyers for Otieno’s family, issued an “international call to action,” pointing out that many of Otieno’s family members live in Kenya. Crump said the call to action was “very simple.”
“It is that when Black people in America have mental health issues, we cannot treat them like criminal issues,” Crump said during Wednesday’s service.
Crump later said the basis of an “Irvo Law” could be establishing mental health courts in Virginia to take up cases involving people experiencing mental health distress. He said similar systems have been implemented in California and New York.
“The legacy of Irvo is going to be appropriate mental health care so that you and everyone else in this room can feel comfortable coming forward and saying, ‘I need help’ and be welcomed and not be put into a cold jail cell,” Mark Krudys, another attorney for Otieno’s family, told reporters after the service.