Police officer convicted of killing a Colorado man is set to learn if he will spend time behind bars
Jan 4, 2024, 10:23 PM
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
DENVER (AP) — A Colorado police officer convicted of killing Elijah McClain, a young Black man walking home from a store, is expected to learn Friday whether a judge will sentence him to prison or he will receive probation.
McClain’s mother also may speak at the sentencing hearing.
Among the three officers charged in McClain’s 2019 death, Randy Roedema was the only one found guilty and was the most senior officer who initially responded to the scene. A jury convicted the former Aurora officer in October of criminally negligent homicide, which is a felony, and third-degree assault, which is a misdemeanor.
McClain’s killing received little attention at the time, but gained renewed interest the following year as mass protests swept the nation after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. McClain’s death became a rallying cry for critics of racial injustice in policing.
In a separate trial, two paramedics were recently convicted for injecting 23-year-old McClain with an overdose of the sedative ketamine after police put him in a neck hold. Sentencing will come later this year for the paramedics, who had been trained to use ketamine to treat “ excited delirium ” — a disputed condition some say is unscientific, rooted in racism, and used to justify excessive force.
McClain was stopped by police after a 911 caller reported that he looked suspicious. Another officer put his hands on McClain within seconds, beginning a struggle and restraint that lasted about 20 minutes before paramedics injected him with ketamine. Experts say the sedative ultimately killed McClain, who was already weakened from struggling to breath while being pinned down after inhaling vomit into this lungs.
For Roedema, criminally negligent homicide, defined as killing someone by failing to recognize a substantial risk to their life, carries a punishment of probation up to three years in prison. The assault conviction is punishable by probation up to two years in jail.
Judge Mark Warner, a former prosecutor who has been a judge for nearly 20 years, will have to determine a fair sentence by weighing how this homicide case compares to others he has seen in his career, said former district attorney George Brauchler. A first conviction can lead to a sentence of probation, but the judge must also consider that Roedema was a uniformed police officer, given special authority and respect by society, and a jury convicted him of taking a life, Brauchler said.
“I don’t know how that person gets to go home that night,” said Brauchler, who prosecuted the 2012 Aurora theater shooting case. “I think that would be very tough.”
Even if Warner decided to put Roedema on probation, he could require him to spend up to 90 days in jail first as part of that sentence, Brauchler said.
Roedema’s sentences for the assault and homicide charge are likely to be served at the same time, and not back-to-back for a longer sentence, since they involve the same actions. If Roedema is sent to prison, he would be eligible for parole in a year and likely sent to a halfway house before then, under prison regulations, he said.
Roedema helped hold McClain down while paramedics administered the ketamine. He was often visible in the body camera footage shown over and over to jurors, and could be heard directing others how to restrain him.
The same jury that convicted Roedema acquitted former officer Jason Rosenblatt, whose lawyers stressed that he wasn’t close to McClain when the ketamine was injected.
A different jury acquitted officer Nathan Woodyard a few weeks later, after he testified that he put McClain in a neck hold, briefly rendering him unconscious. Woodyard testified that he feared for his life after Roedema said McClain had grabbed for one of their guns. Prosecutors say the gun grab never happened.
Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec were convicted last month. Cichuniec, the senior officer, was found guilty of the most serious charge faced by any of the first responders: felony second-degree assault. It carries a mandatory prison sentence of between five and 16 years in prison.
In a statement after those final verdicts, McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, said having three out of the five defendants convicted was not justice, merely “a very small acknowledgment of accountability in the justice system.”
“There were at least 20 individuals there the night my son was alive and talking before he was brutally murdered. Aurora Colorado Police Department and Fire Department kept everyone else on their payroll because both of those departments lack humanity, refusing to admit their inhumane protocols,” she said.
The paramedics’ verdicts came a day after after a jury in Washington state cleared three police officers of all criminal charges in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shocked, beaten and restrained face-down as he pleaded for breath.
Candace McCoy, professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, does not see the recent acquittals there or in Colorado as a sign that the push for police reform is waning. Instead, she said it is a reflection of how hard it is convict police officers of crimes because jurors tend to give them the benefit of the doubt for how they act in emergencies.
While it was rare to prosecute cases against law enforcement in the past, the fact that more of them are being pursued now is not enough to create police reform, she said.
“The way to change and reform the police is to change the culture and the departments, and individual prosecutions will not do that,” McCoy said.