DINWIDDIE, Va. — Seven sheriff’s deputies and three employees of a psychiatric hospital in Virginia cannot all be tried together in the death of a man who was pinned to the floor while being admitted, a judge ruled, while leaving open the possibility of joint trials for some of the defendants.
Dinwiddie Circuit Judge Joseph Teefey Jr. on Wednesday granted requests from two Central State Hospital employees to be tried separately from the other defendants. It remains unclear whether the remaining eight defendants will stand trial together. During a court hearing, the judge did not rule out trying some of them at the same time.
Lawyers for the two hospital employees argued it would be unfair to require their clients to stand trial with some of the other defendants, including sheriff’s deputies who had a more active role in restraining Irvo Otieno, 28. All 10 defendants are charged with second-degree murder in Otieno’s death March 6.
Rhonda Quagliana, an attorney for hospital security guard Sadarius Williams, argued in court papers that Williams’ participation “was markedly different and does not support a conviction for second-degree murder.”
Teefey granted the request by Williams to be tried separately from the other defendants and granted a similar request from an attorney for hospital employee Darian Blackwell. The Washington Post reported that attorneys for the two men said they would agree to be tried together.
During earlier hearings and in statements, attorneys for several of the defendants have argued that Otieno was combative and that the deputies were trying to restrain him. They have said their clients were positioned near Otieno’s feet during the restraint and did not realize he was having trouble breathing.
Video from the hospital shows various members of the group attempting to restrain Otieno — who was in handcuffs and leg shackles — for about 20 minutes. For most of that time, Otieno was on the floor being held down by a group that at one point appeared to include 10 people.
An autopsy determined Otieno died of asphyxia while he was in handcuffs and metal leg restraints and held to the floor for about 11 minutes.
In a motion seeking to hold a single trial for all 10 defendants, Dinwiddie Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill argued that they “acted together” and should be tried together.
The family of Otieno, who was Black, has said he was brutally mistreated while he was experiencing a mental health crisis, both at the hospital and while in law enforcement custody for several days before that.
The family is being represented by Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney who also represented the family of George Floyd and has said Otieno’s treatment has parallels to Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in 2020.