DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The Commonwealth’s Attorney in the case of an in-custody death that has garnered national attention is speaking out, providing insight on why she charged 10 individuals with second-degree murder and plans for the cases moving forward.
Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Baskervill has received criticism for her handling of the cases against seven Henrico County Sheriff’s Deputies and three Central State Hospital workers who were charged in connection with the in-custody death of Irvo Otieno. Baskervill used a rare but legal procedure to charge the suspects on an information the week after 28-year-old Otieno died at the hospital. Since then, surveillance video from Central State has been released, drawing additional concern from defense attorneys regarding their clients’ right to a fair trial and impartial jury.
“We have a death in custody. We need to take that very seriously and immediately,” Baskervill told 8News on Thursday. “Unfortunately, the people involved were very back at work the next day, and what we had is people at Central State, people at Henrico Jail, people out in the community that, immediately, as soon as they heard there was a death at Central State, they were frightfully worried for themselves.”
Baskervill, who said that she considers herself to be pro-law enforcement, maintained that she had an obligation as a Commonwealth’s Attorney to move swiftly and transparently.
“When Irvo is in our custody — ‘our’ as the government, our society — he’s in our custody,” she said. “We need to earn and maintain the public trust in ways that preserve our legitimacy and preserve our transparency, so that we can be trusted, because we have to be trusted. Public safety requires that. In addition to getting people off the street, it requires that we be a trustworthy government, by the people and for the people.”
Baskervill said that, since filing the charges, she has received support from her constituents. Although she previously served as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in both Richmond and Hopewell, Baskervill said that she had not heard from other Commonwealth’s Attorneys regarding the handling of these cases.
“I think everyone is, maybe, a little bit afraid of weighing in on something that has become controversial, not just because, you know, the facts of the case, but just these bigger issues that are being discussed,” she told 8News. “The other part of that is, I don’t want to hear them weigh in because this is not political for me. This is me doing my job as a prosecutor.”
Seven Henrico County Sheriff’s Deputies were arrested on March 14, after turning themselves in for questioning with Virginia State Police. Two days later, three Central State Hospital workers were arrested and charged with the same second-degree murder offense, which carries a minimum of five years and a maximum of 40 years behind bars, if convicted, according to the Code of Virginia.
The charges stemmed from the in-custody death of Otieno at Central State Hospital on March 6. The 28-year-old was transferred from Henrico Jail West to the hospital that day for medical attention, as authorities and loved ones said that he was in mental distress. Surveillance video — which has only been introduced as official evidence before a judge in Dinwiddie County Circuit Court in the form of stills at this point — showed Otieno’s interactions with Henrico Sheriff’s deputies both at the jail, as he was being taken to the transport vehicle, outside the hospital admissions room, and then inside the admissions area, where he later died.
“Nobody is asked, at this point, to render a judgment on guilt or innocence. That is one piece of evidence,” Baskervill said of the video. “It’s video that was maintained in the course of governance, and since it is on behalf of all of us, and he, Irvo, was in our custody, in the custody of the government, I think it’s important to share what we have.”
In the weeks since their clients were charged, defense attorneys have raised questions about why Central State Hospital workers did not intervene sooner once sheriff’s deputies arrived on-property with Otieno. Although Baskervill noted that there was a set standard for at what point an individual is transferred from the custody of one agency to another, she declined to provide details.
A Virginia Department of Criminal Justices (DCJS) spokesperson told 8News, “There are no model policies published by DCJS on the transfer of physical custody. The Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission does not cover the transfer of physical custody during accreditation assessments.”
Baskervill said that she hoped subpoenas might help clarify how the defendants were trained, and whether that training was followed.
Court documents obtained by 8News showed that on April 10, the Commonwealth’s Attorney issued a subpoena for “any and all employment records, training records, training materials, to include PowerPoint presentations, etc. on positional asphyxia” from the Henrico Jail. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined that Otieno’s death was a homicide as the result of positional and mechanical asphyxia with restraints.
“Law enforcement are highly trained in the use of force in the right circumstances and the right ways to deploy it,” Baskervill said Thursday. “Using force is designed not to lead to fatal consequences, unless that is the only alternative. There are cases, unfortunately, where lethal force is appropriate. Our position, though, is that this is not one of them.”
The Commonwealth’s Attorney went on to describe Otieno’s death as a “crazy, awful situation,” where the 28-year-old, “dealing with mental illness died in government custody in very dramatic circumstances.” She said that this tragedy should shine a light on national policy when it comes to the treatment of individuals of mental distress both in hospital and jail settings.
To that point, Baskervill previously said that she was calling on the federal government to assist with the cases against the 10 individuals charged with Otieno’s death. Although a spokesperson with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia (EDVA) declined to comment on the matter, Baskervill provided an update Thursday.
“It looks like that probably will not happen on these cases,” she said. “This is so much bigger than just Dinwiddie County. It’s bigger than something that happened on premises at the edge of our county, and I think this is, really, an issue of national policy concern and one that, I think, deserves really deep and thorough truth-seeking that the state courts, the court at the county level, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, even, is not really designed to handle.”
Baskervill said that, if these cases go to trial, she was confident that a jury would be able to distinguish between information released outside of court and information presented as evidence before a judge.
“I’m not hiding the ball from anyone; not my constituents, not the community, and also not the defendants,” she said. “This is the Commonwealth’s position, and now you can defend. You can defend against that.”
Early on in the investigation, which is still ongoing, the Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office noted that additional charges were pending. However, Baskervill said Thursday that her office was not looking at arresting other individuals at this time, nor was she planning to reach out to defendants to discuss possible plea agreements.
“I’m always open to that,” she said. “I don’t know that that is what will happen here. Never say ‘never.'”
Baskervill also confirmed that she would not be seeking re-election, but said she had reached that decision before these cases came about.
“I hope that I have set an example. I hope that I have done work that can be built upon for seeking justice,” she said. “But this is not about me, and this isn’t something that nobody else can do.”
You can watch the full interview with Baskervill below: