BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — Opening statements are scheduled Wednesday in the third and final trial over the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, who died after he was stopped by police in suburban Denver.
Jurors will have to decide if two paramedics committed a crime when they gave the 23-year-old Black man an overdose of the sedative ketamine after he was forcibly restrained by officers in Aurora. Three officers already have gone to trial and two were acquitted, including one who is back at work for the police department. The third officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.
The last trial is expected to explore largely uncharted legal territory since it is rare for medical first responders to face criminal charges.
Aurora Fire Department paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and several counts each of assault — all felonies.
Shortly after the ketamine injection, McClain, a massage therapist known for his gentle nature, went into cardiac arrest on his way to the hospital. He was pronounced dead three days later.
Initially no one was charged because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died. But in 2021, social justice protests over the 2020 murder of George Floyd drew renewed attention to McClain’s case, and a grand jury indicted the paramedics and three officers.
The amended coroner’s report in 2021 found McClain died from “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.”
Prosecution experts who testified during the earlier trials did not all agree on the role the police’s actions played in McClain’s death but all said that the ketamine was the main cause.
McClain, who weighed 140 pounds (64 kilograms), was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for someone of his size and overdosed, Dr. Stephen Cina found in the amended autopsy report. McClain was extremely sedated within minutes of being given the ketamine, wrote Cina, who said he believed McClain was gasping for air when he was put on a stretcher.
The paramedics’ attorneys did not return telephone calls or emails seeking comment on the allegations against them.
McClain’s death brought increased scrutiny to how police and paramedics use ketamine. It is often used at the behest of police if they believe suspects are out of control.
The fatal encounter on Aug. 24, 2019, began when a 911 caller reported that the young Black man looked “sketchy” as he walked down the street wearing a ski mask and raising his hands in the air.
McClain, who was often cold, was just walking home from a convenience store, listening to music.
Moments later, police stopped him and after a struggle put him in a neck hold. He was rendered briefly unconscious, prompting police to call for paramedics while officers restrained him on the ground.
One of the police officers indicted in McClain’s death was convicted last month of the lesser charges he faced after defense attorneys sought to blame the paramedics. Randy Roedema faces anywhere from probation to prison time when he is sentenced next month.
Officer Nathan Woodyard, who was acquitted, has returned to work for the Aurora Police Department but on restricted duty as he gets caught up on changes made at the agency since he was suspended in 2021. They include reforms the department agreed to after a state attorney general’s office investigation launched in 2020 amid outrage over McClain’s death found a pattern of racially-biased policing and excessive force in Aurora.
Woodyard will get $212,546 in back pay.
The other officer acquitted, Jason Rosenblatt, had been fired in 2020 for his reaction to a photo reenacting a neck hold like the one used on McClain. When the officers sent the photo to him, he responded “ha ha.”