DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — More than two months after the in-custody death of Irvo Otieno, 28, five suspects appeared in Dinwiddie County Circuit Court for pre-trial hearings, which resulted in a series of motions from defense attorneys, including two who successfully garnered the judge’s denial of an effort that would have joined trials for all 10 defendants.

Henrico County Sheriff’s Deputies Kaiyell Sanders, Tabitha Levere and Jermaine Branch, along with Central State Hospital workers Sadarius Williams and Darian Blackwell appeared before Chief Judge Joseph Teefey, Jr. on Wednesday.

Preparing arguments

All 10 suspects facing second-degree murder charges in connection with Otieno’s death at Central State Hospital on March 6 were granted bond during previous hearings, and have since made bail. Sanders, whose bond amount was set the highest at $25,000, was the first defendant in this case called on the docket. Represented by attorney Ed Riley, Sanders’ hearing was relatively brief, as Riley said that he was not prepared to address the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s previously filed motion to have all 10 suspects face trial together.

“I’ve made available to counsel the Commonwealth’s entire file, which includes two hard drives,” Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Baskervill said Wednesday in court. “I know it’s a lot of materials to go through, so I don’t object to that request.”

But Sanders — who, during an earlier court appearance, was revealed to be a sergeant with the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office — was named again later Wednesday morning by Rhonda Quagliana, the defense attorney representing Sadarius Williams.

Joined or separate trials?

“Mr. Williams is not culpable for murder,” Quagliana said. “We have four sheriff’s deputies who undertake this very aggressive, maybe criminal behavior earlier.”

Quagliana argued that Williams and Blackwell should be tried separately from the sheriff’s deputies because of their level of alleged involvement. Those claims stemmed from the timeline of events leading up to Otieno’s March 6 death. The 28-year-old was at Henrico Jail West that day, when surveillance video showed sheriff’s deputies appearing to deploy pepper spray on him through a door. Authorities and loved ones have maintained that Otieno was in mental distress and in need of medical attention, hence the efforts to transfer him to Central State Hospital. But before that transfer happened, there was engagement between Otieno and Henrico deputies at the jail.

“Sanders, Rogers, Bramble and Boyer then charge into his cell, and the floor is covered with excrement,” Quagliana said. “They tackle him with a serious degree of force, and Deputy Sanders is seen punching repeatedly.”

Quagliana said video of this incident was under seal, and thus not visible to the public.

She was among the defense attorneys Wednesday who argued that her client should not be subject to a joint trial.

“That is all evidence. It’s going to spill over onto Mr. Williams, and it’s simply not fair,” Quagliana said. “It’s not just confrontation. Issues that will be implicated if the court allows all of these defendants to be tried together, it will add at least nine additional prosecutors to the room because all of the sheriff’s deputies will cross-examine all of our witnesses to defend their position, which I also disagree is consistent across the board. These witnesses to point fingers at each other.”

But Baskervill argued that the evidence would be the same for each of the 10 defendants, and that a singular, joint trial would be the most efficient use of everyone’s time.

“Multiple trials would impair both the efficiency and fairness of the criminal justice system,” she said. “The prosecutors bring separate proceedings, presenting the same evidence again and again, requiring victims and witnesses to repeat the inconvenience of some form of testifying.”

Baskervill also argued that reports from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) indicated that any individual involved in any level of contact with Otieno while at Central State Hospital contributed to his death. 8News’ requests for copies of the autopsy and toxicology report have been denied, but an OCME spokesperson confirmed that the official cause and manner of death was “positional and mechanical asphyxia with restraints” and a homicide.

The judge, however, denied Baskervill’s motion for a joint trial for Williams and Blackwell with the eight other defendants. Subsequent court appearances were scheduled for June and August for the other suspects for their attorneys to argue whether any of those individuals should be part of the proposed joint trial. In response, Baskervill asked the judge whether an additional motion to request a joint trial for Central State Hospital Workers Williams, Blackwell and Jones would be acceptable, and Judge Teefey said he would consider it. Attorney Emily Munn, representing Blackwell, said she would be open to the possibility of a joint trial for the three hospital workers, separate from that of the sheriff’s deputies.

Attempted ‘gag order’

Also during Wednesday’s court appearances, attorney Andrew Meyer, representing Deputy Levere — whose bond amount was set the lowest at $5,000 — requested a so-called gag order, which would have prohibited both Commonwealth’s Attorney Baskervill and possibly even himself from making public commentary on this case. A similar motion had previously been made by a different defense team, but both the earlier motion and that argued Wednesday were denied by Judge Teefey.

In court, Meyer presented “the Davenport admonishment” as part of his argument. That was in reference to a series of issues involving Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport. Although neither attorneys nor Judge Teefey in court Wednesday were explicit in which admonishment they were citing, Baskervill said she remembered “gasping because of the language,” and that “the structure of the sentence was that the defendant charged committed murder.”

In April, Davenport was cited for an ethics violation by the state bar for statements she made to the media during a trial related to a cold case that took more than 20 years to solve surrounding the 1996 disappearance and presumed homicide of Linda Lunsford in Chesterfield County. But, in February, Davenport was also criticized — along with Chesterfield County Chief of Police Jeff Katz — in an 11-page ruling by Chesterfield County Circuit Court Chief Judge David Johnson regarding public comments that both individuals made regarding the handling of the solicitation of prostitution case against Virginia Beach Pastor John Blanchard, which is still playing out in court.

Meyer argued that public commentary from attorneys with the most knowledge on these cases could jeopardize Levere’s right to a fair trial.

“This is a matter that should be tried here in court, and not in the media,” he said. “There’ve already been inflammatory statements made. I’ve chosen not to engage and counter.”

But the motion was denied.

Also this week, Otieno’s brother, Leon Ochieng, petitioned to become the executor of his estate, which would allow the family access to Otieno’s medical records, as well as previously unreleased video and documents. The family declined to speak with members of the media on Wednesday, but Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, was visibly emotional in the courtroom, as attorneys recounted what happened to her son in his final moments.