A deadly walk home, five charged and three convicted: What happened to Elijah McClain?

Described by one friend as ‘the sweetest, purest person I have ever met’, Elijah McClain lost his life after encountering three police officers and two paramedics while walking home. Kelly Rissman reports

Saturday 23 December 2023 15:25 GMT
<p>Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who died days after he was stopped by three policemen and  injected with a powerful sedative in August 2019</p>

Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who died days after he was stopped by three policemen and injected with a powerful sedative in August 2019

On 24 August 2019, Elijah McClain was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colorado, listening to music and wearing a ski mask, when a 911 caller reported him as “looking sketchy”.

It was a call that would lead to the 23-year-old’s death and trigger a social uprising over the role race plays in policing.

Police spotted McClain — who was not armed and had not committed any crime — and put him in a neck hold. Paramedics then arrived at the scene and injected the young man with ketamine.

He died three days later.

Now, years after the fatal incident, the verdicts are in after the trials of the five men — two paramedics and three Aurora police officers — have come to a close.

Who was Elijah McClain?

McClain was a 23-year-old massage therapist. He had reportedly earned his GED from Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver and became a massage therapist at 19.

Friends and family described him as a gentle person — to humans and animals. He taught himself to play guitar and violin, and would play his violin for cats in a rescue shelter during his lunch breaks, The Cut reported.

“I don’t even think he would set a mouse trap if there was a rodent problem,” his friend Eric Behrens told the Sentinel. Another friend — and former client — Marna Arnett called McClain “the sweetest, purest person I have ever met,” she added, “He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.”

“He wanted to change the world,” his mother, Sheneen McClain, told the outlet. “And it’s crazy, because he ended up doing it anyway.”

What happened to Elijah McClain?

Bodycam footage which was released months after the encounter captured the officers interacting with the 23-year-old.

An officer approached McClain, who was listening to music, and demanded he stop walking. Eventually, he complied, as an officer apparently said he was stopping McClain for looking suspicious.

When the officers tried to grab McClain, he resisted, saying, “I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”

The officers repeatedly told McClain to “stop tensing up.”

Paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec in court

Moments later, McClain was brought to the ground and held in a carotid hold. He can be heard moaning, sobbing, repeating that “it hurts” and pleading with the officers to stop.

McClain then tried to turn to his side to vomit, prompting an officer to say: “If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out here and he’s going to bite you.”

The 23-year-old vomited, and apologised. “I wasn’t trying to do that,” he says. “I just can’t breathe correctly.”

According to a report from an independent panel, the paramedics “waited almost seven minutes after arriving to interact with Mr. McClain, and their first contact was to administer the sedative ketamine.”

He suffered from cardiac arrest on his way to the hospital and died a few days later.

The autopsy revealed that he was 5ft 6in tall and weighed just 140 pounds. The coroner’s amended report said, “Simply put, this dosage of ketamine was too much for this individual and it resulted in an overdose … I believe that Mr. McClain would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine.”

Who were the officers and paramedics involved?

A grand jury indicted five involved in the incident.

Two Aurora Police officers, Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard, and one former officer, Jason Rosenblatt, as well as former paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec were each indicted on charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

According to the 32-count indictment, Mr Woodyard placed the 23-year-old in a carotid hold, while Mr Roedema, the senior patrol officer on the scene, placed him in a bar hammer lock; he said he heard McClain’s shoulder pop three times as a result of the movement.

Mr Roedema and Mr Rosenblatt were each indicted on one count of assault and one count of crime of violence. Mr Rosenblatt was fired not for his interaction with McClain directly, but for laughing at a photo sent to him from a fellow officer reenacting a neckhold that resembled the one used on McClain.

A demonstrator carries an image of Elijah McClain during a rally and march in Aurora in 2020

Mr Woodyard was also allegedly sent the photo, but didn’t react to it and deleted it. He stopped McClain for supposedly looking suspicious.

The paramedics were each indicted on three counts of assault and six counts of crime of violence. Neither Mr Cooper nor Mr Cichuniec took McClain’s vitals, try talking to the 23-year-old, or touch him before diagnosing him with a widely disputed medical condition called “excited delirium,” prompting them to administer ketamine, according to the indictment.

They all pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In May, a national organisation of coroners became the latest to denounce “excited delirium,” which is often cited as a cause of death by police in instances of violence from officers against community members. The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) announced they would cease recognising the condition.

Why did the trials happen in 2023?

The first coroner’s report in November 2019 said that the manner of death was “undetermined,” contributing to a local district attorney’s decision against pursuing charges against the officers involved in the incident.

In response, Mari Newman, the lawyer representing McClain’s family told Denver7 ABC, “Whatever the report says, it’s clear that if the police had not attacked Elijah McClain, he would be alive today.”

But the incident generated significant public backlash. In June 2020, an online petition demanding that the three officers involved be held accountable circulated, garnering nearly 6 million signatures. A GoFundMe page for McClain raised over $2m.

Trial in Elijah McClain Case Begins

Then, in June 2020, Colorado Gov Jared Polis signed an executive order designating a special prosecutor to determine whether “the facts support prosecution, criminally prosecute any individuals whose actions caused the death of Elijah McClain.”

The coroner provided an amended version in July 2021, writing that she believed the “tragic fatality is most likely the result of ketamine toxicity”.

Shortly thereafter, in September 21, a grand jury indicted three officers and two paramedics involved.

A Colorado district judge ordered three separate trials for the five defendants, all of which took place from September through December 2023.

What happened in the officers’ trials?

The trial of Roedema and Mr Rosenblatt began in September. Following almost three weeks of testimony, jurors began deliberations at around 4.30pm on Tuesday afternoon, following closing statements from prosecutors and the defence. The state arguing that the officers used excessive force and failed to follow their law enforcement training.

“They were trained. They were told what to do. They were given instructions. They had opportunities, and they failed to choose to de-esclate violence when they needed to, they failed to listen to Mr McClain when they needed to, and they failed Mr McClain,” prosecutor Duane Lyons told jurors.

The defence meanwhile argued that the fault lay with the paramedics for injecting McClain with a fatal dose of ketamine.

On 12 October, jurors found Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault by the 12-person jury. Mr Rosenblatt was found not guilty.

Days later, starting on 16 October, officer Nathan Woodyard – who was accused of putting McClain in a carotid hold which ultimately rendered him unconscious – stood trial.

“At every single turn he chose to escalate,” the prosecutor said during closing arguments. “The carotid hold that the defendant did contributed to and helped cause Elijah McClain’s death.”

The defence attorney, however, argued that the officer took off McClain’s mask after hearing the massage therapist say that he couldn’t breathe. Mr Woodyard’s lawyer instead placed the blame on the paramedics: “If he does not know that [the paramedics are] going to OD McClain without doing a proper assessment, then he is not guilty.”

Mr Woodyard was suspended from the department pending the outcome of the trial. On 6 November, he was found not guilty; the department reinstated him.

What happened in the paramedics’ trial?

Mr Cooper and Mr Cichuniec, the Aurora Fire and Rescue paramedics who injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine during the incident, went on trial in December. They faced charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault and crimes of violence.

Both pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The solicitor general argued that the paramedics “intentionally injected Elijah McClain, who was laying on the ground, barely moving, struggling to breathe, with an overdose of ketamine” without adhering to protocols.

The prosecutor emphasised: “They conducted no assessment. They didn’t speak a word to Elijah. They didn’t put a finger on him. And then they overdosed him with 150 per cent of the dose someone his size should have gotten. And then they failed to even check on him until his pulse was gone. They knew better.”

Mr Cooper’s attorney argued that the paramedic had checked McClain’s vitals and confirmed he was breathing before administering the drug.

Both paramedics testified that they followed standards laid out in training and protocols.

“We were there to help, follow our protocols and get him to the hospital. That’s what we do, that’s why we’re in this career. We’re servants,” Mr Cooper testified.

Paramedics Jeremy Cooper, far left, and Peter Cichuniec, far right, enter the Adams County, Colo., Justice Center, Friday 22 December

In his testimony, Mr Cichuniec said: “If we don’t work fast, he could die… Time is of the essence. I went off training and went up to 500 (milligrams).”

The paramedics were also questioned on why they injected McClain with 500mg of ketamine, given his small stature. The department’s protocol calls for paramedics to calculate a ketamine dose of 5 milligrams per kilogram of the patient’s weight. “Under your estimate of Mr McClain’s weight, the appropriate dose would have only been 425?” the prosecutor asked.

Mr Cichuniec testified that they upped the dosage due to his state of “excited delirium.”

Mr Cooper also noted in his testimony that after hearing officers saying McClain was being combative and seemed to be “on something,” he thought ketamine was the right drug to administer.

A Memphis-based EMT specialist reviewed footage of the incident and testified that both men “acted appropriately” and that McClain received “great care” in their hands.

However, Dr Roger Mitchell, a forensic pathologist who also watched the bodycam footage, testified that McClain exhibited “no evidence of excited delirium,” but rather the need for more oxygen.

On 22 December, both paramedics were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide but neither were found guilty of manslaughter. Cichuniec was also found guilty of assault in the second degree through the unlawful administration of drugs.

Cooper was acquitted of two assault charges and Cichuniec was acquitted of one of the two assault charges.

Following the verdicts, the The Denver Post reported that McClain’s mother Sheneen McClain raised her fist and chanted: “We did it! We did it! We did it!”

Beyond the courtroom

Outside of criminal charges, McClain’s parents have also reached a $15m settlement with the city of Aurora.

“I hope Elijah’s legacy is that police will think twice before killing another innocent person,” his father, LaWayne Mosley, said after the settlement was announced.

Former officer Jason Rosenblatt, left, and Aurora Police Officer Randy Roedema, right, at an arraignment at the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, Colorado in January 2023

“There is nothing that can rectify the loss of Elijah McClain and the suffering his loved ones have endured,” Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said at the time. “I am committed to learning from this tragedy.”

The 23-year-old’s death occurred around the same time as the deaths of Breanna Taylor and George Floyd, who were also Black Americans killed at the hands of police.

Together and separately, the deaths propelled protests and sparked demands for police reform.

And at least in Colorado, some policies were reformed.

In 2020, the state banned police from using neck holds. The Colorado health department prohibited paramedics from implementing ketamine for those supposedly experiencing “excited delirium,” like in the case of McClain.

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