Officers, paramedics charged in death of Elijah McClain

A grand jury has returned a 32-count indictment against officers and paramedics involved in the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was put in a chokehold by Aurora police and injected with a sedative during an August 2019 arrest, Colorado’s attorney general announced Wednesday. The charges include manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

McClain’s death gained widespread attention last year amid a national reckoning on police brutality and racial injustice that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

elijah-mcclain.jpg
Elijah McClain Mari Newman

In June 2020, Colorado attorney general Phil Weiser launched an independent investigation into McClain’s death, and in January announced a grand jury would determine whether the officers and paramedics involved should be charged. A local district attorney had in 2019 declined to file charges, citing inconclusive evidence surrounding how McClain died.

Weiser on Wednesday said two Aurora police officers, Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema, former police officer Jason Rosenblatt and Aurora Fire and Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec have been charged with one count each of manslaughter and one count each of criminally negligent homicide. Two of the officers face additional assault and crime of violence counts, and the two paramedics also face assault counts, in addition to counts of recklessly causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon — the sedative ketamine. 

In addition, the paramedics face assault counts related to “intentionally causing stupor, unconsciousness, or other physical or mental impairment or injury” by administering ketamine to McClain without consent, for a purpose other than lawful medical treatment.

“Nothing will bring back my son, but I am thankful that his killers will finally be held accountable,” McClain’s father LaWayne Mosely said in a statement released to the Denver Post through his attorney, Mari Newman.  

McClain had been walking home from a convenience store wearing a ski mask when someone called 911 to report a suspicious person. Three arriving officers tried to arrest the unarmed man, using a carotid hold — a technique where pressure is placed on both sides of the neck — and tackling him to the ground. Aurora Fire Department personnel later injected him with the sedative ketamine. He suffered a heart attack and was later removed from life support.

Another independent investigation into McClain’s death, which was conducted by a consulting firm
and wasn’t tasked with determining whether criminal wrongdoing occurred, found in February that officers used force or threat of force “nearly constantly” against McClain in the 18 minutes from the time police first approached him until he was placed on a gurney to be transported to the hospital. The officers justified the use of force by saying McClain resisted and showed extraordinary strength, but body cam audio portrayed a starkly different scenario, the report said.

“The audio captured by the body worn camera contains two sharply contrasting narratives — on the one hand, Mr. McClain pleading, apologizing, and expressing pain, and on the other hand, the officers continuing to perceive resistance,” the report found.

The report found that officers took McClain into custody within seconds of their interaction with him, failed to assess whether there was reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime had occurred, and continued to use force against McClain after it was justified. It found paramedics who responded didn’t didn’t immediately provide care to McClain, accepting the officers’ suggestion that he was experiencing “excited delirium” without evaluating him. Paramedics also overestimated McClain’s weight before administering the ketamine, affecting the weight-based calculation for dosage, the report found.

“Our department has the solemn duty to prosecute this case. Make no mistake, we recognize that this case will be difficult to prosecute — these types of cases always are,” Weiser said. “Our goal is to seek justice for Elijah McClain, for his family and friends, and for our state. In so doing, we advance the rule of law ad the commitment that everyone is accountable and equal under the law.”

Weiser said McClain “was a son, a nephew, a brother and a friend” who was only 23 when he died.

“He had his whole life ahead of him, and his family and friends must now go on and live without him,” Weiser said. “His death is a loss to all of us.”

In a statement released to CBS Denver, the Aurora Police Association said “our officers did nothing wrong.”

“McClain died due to a combination of exertion due to his decision to violently resist arrest and a preexisting heart condition,” the statement said. “He was alive and talking when the officers turned him over to EMS. There is no evidence that our officers caused his death.”

The three officers involved in McClain’s death were removed from patrol duty in June 2020. One, Rosenblatt, was later fired when he texted “haha” in response to a photo of other officers mimicking the chokehold used on McClain. The officers who took the picture were also fired.

Weiser’s office is continuing to investigate whether the Aurora Police Department has a pattern or practice of violating citizens’ civil rights.