Justice for Irvo Otieno

Ben Crump, others demand better treatment for mental health patients

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/25/2023, 6 p.m.
“We can’t keep treating mentally ill brothers and sisters as if they are degenerates. They have lives that are worthy …
The mother of Irvo Otieno, Caroline Ouko, center, wipes a tear as his brother, Leon Ochieng, left, consoles his mother while Wednesday they are seated with Attorney Benjamin Crump during the Justice for Irvo Otieno Town Hall at Virginia Union University’s Claude G. Perkins Living & Learning Center. Photo by Regina H. Boone

“We can’t keep treating mentally ill brothers and sisters as if they are degenerates. They have lives that are worthy of dignity and respect.”

So said renowned Attorney Benjamin L. “Ben” Crump as he brought his crusade for improved mental health care to Richmond Wednesday evening, just hours before the nation marks the third anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minnesota.

“If we don’t continue to talk about it, to speak truth to power and act against the power,” Mr. Crump said, then deaths like George Floyd will continue to happen.

He spoke to more than 150 people who gathered on the campus for the event titled “Justice for Irvo Otenio” that promoted improvements in mental health care for those in crisis, particularly Black people.

Informally dubbed “Black America’s attorney general,” Mr. Crump, who represented George Floyd’s family, is representing the family of Mr Otenio, who has become another high-profile example of a Black man suffering mental illness being killed in custody.

Mr. Otenio’s mother, Caroline Ouko, and brother Leon, sat up front with Mr. Crump during the discussion.

Mr. Otenio, a high school athlete and rap recording artist, was suffocated to death like George Floyd while being admitted to Central State Hospital March 6 following three days of abuse at the Henrico County Jail, where video evidence shows he was pepper-sprayed and beaten while being held naked in a cell.

In Mr. Otenio’s case, 10 people, including seven Henrico sheriff’s deputies, are facing charges up to murder for piling onto Mr. Otenio’s body for nearly 12 minutes while he was handcuffed and shackled in a front lobby of the hospital.

“Just as George Floyd said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ Irvo Otenio said, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Mr. Crump said, calling the two parallel ases “horrifying examples” of what people, particularly Black and Brown people, can suffer at the hands of authorities during a mental health episode.

Just like Mr. Otenio, Mr. Floyd, too, met his end while in crisis. He was claustrophobic, Mr. Crump said, but was treated cruelly when he balked at being consigned to the narrow confines of a police rear seat and died when an officer knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes.

“It can happen to anyone. It can happen to your loved ones,” Mr. Crump said, who cited other high-profile cases in which families have engaged him to seek justice.

He spoke of Brianna Grier, a 28-year-old Georgia mother who was fatally injured in 2022 when she fell out of a unsecured rear door of a moving police car as officers took her away for mental evaluation, and of mentally ill LaShawn Thompson, who succumbed last September in an Atlanta jail psychiatric ward after suffering thousands of bed bug bites over 90 days without any relief.

He also spoke of Gershun Freman, 33, who was beaten to death in October by his jailers in Memphis as he suffered a psychotic episode.

“We need to give our children a better America where (those suffering with mental illness) have an opportunity to live without having being killed by excessive force by those who are supposed to serve and protect them,” Mr. Crump said.

“I imagine the agony of the mother and father of Brianna Grier who called the police seeking help for their daughter only to have her die as a result,” he said.

The town hall moderator, Allan-Charles Chipman, a community organizer, said the focus has to be on breaking the stigma of mental illness that makes people suffering from a breakdown tar- gets of abuse and cruelty that sometimes results in their death.

Monica Hutchinson, vice president of the Henrico Branch NAACP, said that any change will require people to become more politically active and willing to lobby elected officials at the local, state and federal levels and vote.

Other s panelists included James Harris, a licensed counselor and founder and leader of mental health organization called Men to Heal; Lawrence West, leader of Black Lives Matter RVA; Joanne Oport, founder of Maryland-based Africans for Mental Health; Denisha Potts of the Chesterfield Branch NAACP who has worked and supervised staff in state mental health operations in Virginia; and Esther Thompson, a registered nurse.

Though they offered different perspectives in their turn, they all agreed with Mr. Crump that, “We need to give our children a better world, a better America” where the mentally ill “are treated with dignity and respect. Is that too much to ask?”