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Youngkin criticized at funeral for man who died at state mental hospital



CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — Hundreds of mourners, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and civil rights attorney Ben Crump, gathered Wednesday to celebrate the life of Irvo Otieno and denounce his death at a state mental hospital, where sheriff’s deputies and hospital employees piled atop his shackled, prone body for 11 minutes.

The two-hour funeral mixed Scripture readings with calls for civil action, a live gospel choir with a recording of Otieno rapping, and remembrances from people who knew Otieno best with those who never heard of him before he became the latest unarmed Black man killed in an on-camera encounter with law enforcement.

Sharpton, in the latter category, took some hard swipes at Gov. Glenn Youngkin, suggesting that Otieno’s death at a state-run hospital dims the Republican’s prospects as a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

“Youngkin can’t be president if he can’t explain his policies on the mentally challenged,” Sharpton said in his eulogy at First Baptist Church of South Richmond. “It’s going to take more than you wearing a vest and campaign smile when you got folks being stampeded by law enforcement … Mr. Governor, on your way to wherever you’re going in the future, what about Irvo?”

Sharpton, a civil rights leader and TV personality, brought the congregation to its feet moments later with a reference to Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko: “If the governor wants to run for president, he’s got to go through Caroline.”

Youngkin was not present but sent two Cabinet secretaries, who left for other appointments before Sharpton’s eulogy. (The service began about an hour late because Sharpton’s flight from New York was delayed.)


The governor has echoed the calls for mental health reform from Otieno’s family and their lawyers, but not their claims that Otieno’s race played a role in what a prosecutor has described as his fatal mistreatment by law enforcement and hospital personnel.

Asked about Sharpton’s comments, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter did not answer directly but said in an email: “The governor continues to lift up the Otieno family in prayer as they remember their son on this sad day. … 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.”

The state budget Youngkin proposed in December would boost mental health funding by $230 million, significantly less than what the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate have proposed in their rival spending plans. Budget negotiations are at a standstill over that and other issues.

Otieno, taken into custody from his mother’s suburban Richmond home during what she has described as a mental health crisis on March 3, died three days later at Virginia’s Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, several dozen miles south of the capital city. Hospital surveillance video shows he was lying face down on the hospital floor, hardly moving and shackled in handcuffs and leg irons, when the Henrico County deputies and hospital workers piled on top of him for 11 minutes.

Seven Henrico deputies and three hospital staffers face second-degree murder charges in his death, which Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill has attributed to asphyxia.

Lawyers for some of the 10 defendants contend that they were trying to restrain a “combative” Otieno. Some said in bond hearings last week that their clients had minimal physical contact with Otieno.

Baskervill said during those hearings that there was “no evidence” that Otieno had been physically aggressive and that he “certainly did not deserve to be smothered to death.”


Hospital surveillance video, which has no sound, shows Henrico County sheriff’s deputies dragging him into the admissions room in handcuffs and leg irons, then pinning him face down on the floor until he goes limp.

Otieno had spent the three days prior in the Henrico County jail, where his mother said staff members rebuffed her efforts to provide him with all of his needed medications. On the day of his transfer to Central State, jail surveillance video shows a group of deputies enter his cell, with one appearing to throw punches.

Two civil rights attorneys representing Otieno’s family, Crump and Mark Krudys, have compared his death to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020, which sparked demonstrations across the country. Crump also represented Floyd’s family.

At the funeral, Crump delivered what he described as a “national call to action” to ensure that people dealing with mental health crises are not treated like criminals. He then corrected himself, calling for an “international call to action,” noting that Otieno was born in Kenya. He moved to the Richmond suburbs with his mother and older brother at age 4.

“Kenyans are crying now,” said Millicent Yugi, who made the trip from Kenya. She referred to herself as Otieno’s “second mother” and said she had been present at his birth.

“As he grew up, he was a normal child. He was not mentally ill,” she said, recalling him as a daredevil climber from the time he was a toddler. “But along the way, when he got ill, we loved him as he was. You can get sick … It does not make you less a human being.”

The front of the funeral program bore a photo of Otieno, smiling broadly in a button-down shirt and argyle sweater. Inside, it telegraphed the family’s rage.


“Irvo ‘Young Vo’ Noel Otieno was suddenly and inhumanely stolen away from his family and friends, at the age of 28, on March 6, 2023, as a result of the actions of people who failed to uphold their oaths of public safety,” it said.

His mother addressed Otieno directly as she spoke to the congregation, her voice breaking with emotion.

“We will miss you dearly … as you fly in heaven with your God,” she said. “We who remain, your family, your friends, and my team beside me, we will get to the bottom of what happened to you. We will stand for you.”

Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.

Source: Washington Post


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