Paramedics have been found guilty of the death of Elijah McClain, who they injected with an overdose of ketamine

By | December 23, 2023

BRIGHTON, Colo. — Two Denver-area paramedics were convicted Friday of the 2019 murder of Elijah McClain, whom they injected with an overdose of the sedative ketamine after police held him by the neck.

It was the latest trial of police and paramedics charged in the death of McClain, a 23-year-old Black man whose case received little attention until protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. An Aurora police officer was convicted of murder and assault earlier this year, while two officers were acquitted. The trial against the paramedics explored largely uncharted legal territory because it is the first case against medical first responders to face criminal charges and may set the bar for prosecutors in future cases.

The jury has found Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec guilty of negligent homicide following a week-long trial in District Court. The jury also found Cichuniec guilty of one of two counts of second-degree assault. Cooper was found not guilty of the assault charges. If convicted, they could face a prison sentence of years.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom. Sitting in the front row, Cooper’s wife cried as officers prepared to handcuff him.

The verdict was announced after two days of deliberation. When jurors told the judge Friday afternoon that they were deadlocked on one of the charges, the judge told them to keep trying to reach a verdict.

Police stopped McClain as he walked home from a supermarket on August 24, 2019, after a suspicious person complaint. After an officer said McClain reached for an officer’s gun — a claim disputed by prosecutors — another officer placed him in a neck hold, temporarily rendering him unconscious. Officers also detained McClain before Cooper injected him with an overdose of ketamine. Cichuniec was the senior officer and said it was his decision to use ketamine.

Prosecutors said the paramedics did not perform basic medical checks on McClain, such as taking his pulse, before giving him the ketamine. The dose was too high for someone his size – 64 kilos, experts testified. Prosecutors say they also did not immediately monitor McClain after giving him the sedative, but instead left him on the ground, making it harder to breathe.

McClain’s pleading words, captured on police body camera footage, “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” struck a chord with protesters and people across the country.

In a statement released ahead of the sentencing, McClain’s mother said everyone present during her son’s police stop showed a lack of humanity.

“They cannot blame their professional training for their indifference to evil or their participation in an evil action,” McClain wrote. “That is entirely up to them. May all their souls rot in hell when their time comes.”

Defense attorneys argued that the paramedics followed their training in giving McClain ketamine after diagnosing him with “excited delirium,” a controversial condition that some say is unscientific and has been used to justify excessive force.

The verdicts came after a jury in Washington state on Thursday acquitted three police officers of all criminal charges in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shocked, beaten and held face down on a Tacoma sidewalk as he begged for breath.

In the Colorado case, the prosecutor said Cooper lied to investigators to cover up his actions, telling investigators that McClain actively resisted when he decided to inject McClain with ketamine, even though the body camera showed McClain unconscious in the lay on the ground. It also disputed Cooper’s claim that McClain tried to escape from police who were holding him — and that he took McClain’s pulse as he bent down to give him the injection of ketamine, which others said they did not see.

“He is attempting to cover up the recklessness of his conduct,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber told jurors in a closing statement.

Cichuniec, who testified alongside Cooper this week, said paramedics were trained to work quickly to treat excited delirium with ketamine and were repeatedly told it was a safe, effective drug and were not warned about the possibility of it. kill someone.

Colorado is now telling paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having the controversial condition known as excited delirium, which has symptoms such as increased strength and has been linked to racial bias against black men.

“We were taught that this is a safe drug and that it will not kill them,” Cichuniec testified.

Local authorities decided not to pursue criminal charges in 2019 because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain, a massage therapist, died. Colorado Governor Jared Polis ordered Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office to review the case in 2020 and a grand jury indicted the officers and paramedics in 2021.

The killings of McClain, Floyd and others sparked a wave of legislation in more than two dozen states imposing restrictions on the use of neck holds.

When police stopped McClain, he was listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face because he had a circulatory disorder. The police stop quickly turned physical after McClain, seemingly taken aback, asked to be left alone. He was not accused of committing any crime.

The officers told investigators they took McClain down after hearing Officer Randy Roedema say, “He took your gun, dude.” Roedema later said Officer Jason Rosenblatt’s gun was the target.

Prosecutors countered that McClain ever tried to grab an officer’s gun and that this did not show up in body camera footage.

Paramedics injected McClain with ketamine while Roedema – and another officer, who was not charged – held him on the ground. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died three days later.

Roedema was convicted earlier this month of the least serious charge in a series of charges he could have faced, which could carry a sentence of probation to prison.

Rosenblatt and Officer Nathan Woodyard were acquitted of all charges.

In the initial trials of the police officers, the defense tried to shift the blame for McClain’s death to the paramedics.

The city of Aurora agreed in 2021 to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents.

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