Judge rejects attempt for single trial for 10 charged in Irvo Otieno death

Legal analyst: 'It really should be in everybody's interest to make sure that the case is as clean as possible'
Irvo Otieno
Posted at 1:04 PM, May 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-12 09:58:06-04

DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. -- The ten defendants charged in the death of Henrico County man Irvo Otieno will not face trial as one group following several court hearings Wednesday.

Dinwiddie County Commonwealth's Ann Baskervill had filed a joinder motion seeking to try the seven Henrico County Sheriff's deputies and three Central State Hospital employees as one, but attorneys for two of the hospital workers, Sadarius Williams and Darian Blackwell, successfully argued before Circuit Court Judge Joseph Teefey their clients should not be a part of that trial.

The main arguments against a joint trial were made by Williams' attorney, Rhonda Quagliana, who argued the evidence that could be submitted in a joint trial that pertains to the deputies would be prejudicial to her client.

The arguments were a part of hearings for five of the suspects Wednesday. The three others were all deputies: Kaiyell Sanders, Tabitha Levere, and Jermaine Branch.

All ten face a second-degree murder charge for the March 6 death of Otieno, 28, at Central State Hospital, which was ruled a homicide and the cause of death determined to be "positional and mechanical asphyxia with restraints". Baskverill has said Otieno was "smothered" to death by the suspects as he was held face down on the hospital floor for 11 minutes.

In her arguments, Baskervill said the evidence against the ten would be the same and none of the defendants were trying to shift blame from one person to another. She added by having one trial it would only require one appearance by witnesses and take up less of the court's time.

"My specific point that, I think, is perhaps most salient and most, perhaps, unique is the nature and cause of death," added Baskervill. She said in cases of homicide where a gun or knife was used, they might have a more clear primary and secondary actor, but that is not the case in Otieno's death. "Essentially, all ten co-defendants are custodians involved in this death and their involvement with the Commonwealth would be offering evidence when the jury would have to decide."

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"Hands on is included, but is not exclusive…the case law is very clear that there are many ways that an individual can commit crime and here the particular dynamics and mechanics of this are such that multiple people, ten in fact, participated in its commission in their deeds, and in their omissions, but as well as in their presence," she added and said Williams worked as a security guard at Central State. "So, his presence there and his involvement there carries the weight of a hospital authority and the Commonwealth's evidence and argument would be focusing on the role of that as well in this group-based dynamic such that we're all kind of relying on each other to accomplish this task -- to put it quite crudely -- of restraining to the point of smothering Irvo Otieno and the restraint, not just being the physical and mechanical, but also kind of logistical."

However, Quagliana, William's attorney argued that the Commonwealth's Attorney had not shown that a joint trial would be speedier and raised concerns about the impact of evidence that could be introduced that would have nothing to do with her client.

"There is real prejudice that Mr. Williams will suffer if the court proceeds as the Commonwealth has asked," said Quagliana. "The Commonwealth has not provided this court is any kind of proffer about the number of witnesses who are going to be inconvenienced, how many they are, whether they are lay or professional, which makes a difference…the court has received zero information so far upon which to find that judicial economy or judicial efficiency will be served by having a massive trial involving all ten of these defendants."

She added she disagreed with the Commonwealth's assertion the evidence would be the same in all cases as and added in he reading of the discovery in the case, some of the sheriff's deputies tried to place the blame on the hospital staff.

"The sheriff's deputies say 'It's not our fault. It's the hospital.' And so, basically, what's going to happen is that the sheriff's deputies are going to step in as substitute prosecutors against my client and try to blame this whole affair on the hospital," said Quagliana.

Quagliana added that evidence could be submitted in a joint trial that pertains only to the deputies and would be prejudicial towards her client. She specifically mentioned video from the Henrico jail that she said depicts Deputy Kaiyell Sanders punching Otieno repeatedly as he and others attempt to remove him from his cell.

"It's very graphic and it's very inflammatory. And it arguably depicts other crimes by them other crimes and I know that those actions are being investigated independently," said Quagliana. "In a standalone trial in which Mr. Williams is tried for second-degree murder as either a principle in the first- or second-degree, that evidence would never, ever, under any circumstance be admissible against him."

The judge agreed with the defense on the issues of prejudice and added he didn't believe trying all ten at once could lead to a quicker trial.

CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone said the Joinder issue comes up in the court of appeals fairly often.

"So it really should be in everybody's interest to make sure that the case is as clean as possible, so it doesn't get re-litigated years down the road," Stone said. "So the judge is trying to protect the case by doing what appears to be the correct thing under the law, and what would have the best case of surviving on appeal at the court of appeals."

The arguments for both sides were then adopted by Blackwell's attorney and the judge also agreed to remove him from the joint trial.

After the defense motions were successful, Baskervill indicated she would file a new motion to try to the Central State employees together and the sheriff's deputies together.

Currently, the two men have June 20 hearings set to pick a date for a jury trial.

Blackwell's attorney said she and Quagliana are open to have their cases tried together, but not with the third Central State employee, Wavie Jones, because he had not asserted his right to a speedy trial — as both Blackwell and Williams did Wednesday and said their trials must start by mid-December.

Meanwhile, a few attorneys for the deputies indicated they are opposed to being tried together as well.

Hearings on those motions will happen in the summer.

Other Hearings

Deputy Tabitha Levere was among the other hearings Wednesday. Her attorney said they would be challenging the joinder motion but were not ready yet and a hearing to argue that was set for August 2.

Levere's attorney also filed a motion to bar attorneys from speaking public about the case, citing Baskervill's numerous interviews with media outlets, including CBS 6, following charges being filed. The judge denied this motion.

Deputy Kaiyell Sanders' attorney also indicated they would challenge the joinder motion and were scheduled for arguments on June 28.

Deputy Jermaine Branch's attorney also said they would challenge the joinder motion and had a hearing set for Aug. 2.

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