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Funeral held for Irvo Otieno, who died in police custody at a psychiatric hospital

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Mourners gathered at a church outside Richmond, Va., this afternoon to remember Irvo Otieno. The service drove home a fuller portrait of the 28-year-old Black man who was killed in custody at a psychiatric hospital earlier this month. Ben Paviour from member station VPM in Richmond was there and joins us now. Ben, if you could, tell us a little bit about the service and how people there honored Otieno.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Well, there were probably a couple hundred people on hand at First Baptist Church of South Richmond. The service was a mixture of prayer and calls to action. It included soaring moments with a full gospel choir that brought the crowd to their feet, and they played a video tribute over a rap Otieno wrote under the name Young Vo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IRVO OTIENO: (Rapping as Young Vo) ...Rock the cargo, growing up to be a man. If you're my fam, be my fam. Sorry if I lost you with my plan.

PAVIOUR: Friends and family described Otieno as a gifted athlete and prolific musician with a big smile and infectious laugh. Otieno's mother, Caroline Ouko, described her son as a deeply loving person, from his family to his pup named Popi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROLINE OUKO: When I took my son to the hospital, this is not what I envisioned. I didn't think my son was not coming home. But, son, this is where we are, (crying) and I'm sorry.

PAVIOUR: She said he would rest not just in peace, but in power. And that was a sentiment we heard a lot, that Otieno's death would not be in vain.

SUMMERS: And, Ben, to that point, did you hear any specific calls for change or justice during the service?

PAVIOUR: Well, to back up for a second, as you know, Otieno was killed while he was being admitted to Central State in the midst of a multi-day mental health crisis. He was pinned to the ground by seven sheriff deputies and three hospital staff while he was handcuffed and his feet were shackled, and he never got up again. All 10 people have been charged for his death by a local prosecutor, who said they smothered Otieno to death.

In Otieno's eulogy, Reverend Al Sharpton connected the young man's death to systemic failures in Virginia's mental health systems. He urged Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin to push for reforms, but also said the men involved needed to be held accountable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL SHARPTON: This boy wasn't hurting nobody. He had a sickness, an illness. And if you were not equipped or trained to deal with the illness, then you should not have showed up to answer the call.

(APPLAUSE)

PAVIOUR: Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump called for mental health courts in Virginia, something that exists in California and New York. He said Otieno needed clinical treatment and never should have spent a weekend in jail. It's worth noting that even before Otieno's death, Youngkin did push for an additional $230 million in mental health funding. That includes crisis teams that could intervene before someone ends up in a hospital. And Youngkin sent representatives to the funeral.

SUMMERS: Ben, what comes next in this case?

PAVIOUR: The 10 suspects in the death are now all out on bail. Their hearings begin at the end of April and early May. In hearings, lawyers for the men who've been charged have attempted to distance themselves from what happened. Some have argued their clients had no idea how severe the situation was, that they just wanted to restrain somebody who'd been unruly. Otieno's family and attorneys say there's no way to justify what they did.

SUMMERS: Ben Paviour from member station VPM in Richmond, Va. - thank you.

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

Ben Paviour