What to know about Elijah McClain’s death and the cases against police and paramedics
Oct 16, 2023, 9:04 PM
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
DENVER (AP) — Opening statements are set for Tuesday in the trial of a police officer charged in the death of a Black man who was put in a neck hold and injected by paramedics with the sedative ketamine after he was stopped while walking home in suburban Denver in 2019.
The presentations in the trial of Aurora officer Nathan Woodyard come just days after jurors delivered a split verdict against two other officers indicted in the death of Elijah McClain. One of those officers was convicted and the other was cleared of charges.
Paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec are scheduled to be prosecuted in the final trial in the case next month.
Here’s what you need to know about McClain’s death:
McClain’s death was one of several that were revisited after the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd, and his name became a rallying cry at the ensuing social justice protests.
The jury convicted Aurora Officer Randy Roedema on Thursday of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault but acquitted Officer Jason Rosenblatt on all counts.
The officers had faced similar charges and the jury didn’t explain its decisions. During the trial, Rosenblatt’s attorneys pointed out that he wasn’t near McClain when he was injected with ketamine.
Prosecutors alleged that Rosenblatt held McClain’s legs when he was on the ground before Rosenblatt stepped away, while Roedema held McClain’s shoulder and back. Roedema and another officer who wasn’t charged restrained McClain while paramedics administered the ketamine.
Roedema was the senior of the two officers. He was often visible in the body camera footage shown to jurors. At times, he seemed to be directing others what to do.
Rosenblatt had only been on the force for two years when McClain died. He was fired in 2020 for making light of a reenactment by other officers of the neckhold.
Former Colorado prosecutor George Brauchler said the jury seemed to be thoughtful in that it distinguished between the two officers’ actions and rejected prosecutors’ suggestion that there had been some complicity between them.
Brauchler, who prosecuted the 2012 Colorado theater shooting. said it appears the jury found there was enough medical evidence to hold Roedema accountable for McClain’s death. But he noted they convicted him of the least serious charges they were presented with.
Roedema could get anywhere from probation to three years in prison when he’s sentenced Jan. 5.
Judge Mark Warner would likely take into account that Roedema was convicted for committing a crime while in uniform and consider the type of message his sentence will send, Brauchler said.
Woodyard was the first of three officers who approached the 23-year-old massage therapist after a 911 caller said McClain seemed suspicious. Woodyard also put McClain in a neck hold that rendered him temporarily unconscious after another officer said that McClain had reached for one of their guns.
Paramedics later injected McClain with an overdose of a powerful sedative, ketamine. He was pronounced dead three days later.
The 911 caller reported that McClain, who was wearing earbuds and listening to music, seemed “sketchy” and was waving his arms as he walked home from a convenience store in Aurora on the night of Aug. 24, 2019. McClain was often cold and wore a runner’s mask and jacket despite the warm weather, prosecutors said in the indictment.
Within 10 seconds, Woodyard put his hands on McClain and turned him around. As McClain tried to escape his grip, Woodyard said, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
The encounter quickly escalated, with officers taking McClain to the ground and putting him in a neckhold, pressing against his carotid artery.
The neckhold, called a carotid control hold, restricts the flow of blood to a person’s brain, rendering them temporarily unconscious. Many states, including Colorado, have passed limits on neck restraints since the murder of Floyd in Minneapolis.
McClain had been kept on the ground for 15 minutes when paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of ketamine. He weighed 140 pounds (64 kilograms) but received a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for someone of his size, said Dr. Stephen Cina, a forensic pathologist who performed McClain’s autopsy. Cina ultimately decided that McClain died of complications from the ketamine, noting that it occurred after the forcible restraint. However, he wasn’t able to say if the death was a homicide or an accident. He testified at the first trial that he was not able to conclude whether the officers’ actions contributed to it.
Pulmonologist David Beuther testified that McClain threw up repeatedly and inhaled vomit, which made it hard to breathe. Even before the ketamine was injected, McClain’s health had deteriorated to the extent that he belonged in an intensive care unit, he said.
A prosecutor initially decided not to bring charges in McClain’s death largely because the initial autopsy didn’t determine exactly how he died.
Following the protests over Floyd’s death, though, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis directed the state attorney general to re-investigate the McClain case. A grand jury indicted the three officers and two paramedics in 2021. Cina said he changed his autopsy findings to pin the blame on ketamine in 2021 after looking at body camera footage.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.