November 29, 2021

Police, medics charged for 2019 death of Elijah McClain

A grand jury has indicted three officers and two paramedics in the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was put in a chokehold and injected with a powerful sedative two years ago near Denver, Colorado’s attorney general.

Attorney General Phil Weiser said on Wednesday that Officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt and fire department paramedic Jeremy Cooper and fire Lieutenant Peter Cichuniec were all charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

The 23-year-old McClain’s death gained widespread attention during last year’s protests against racial injustice and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

McClain’s pleading words that were captured on police body camera video – “I’m just different” – have been posted on signs at protests and spoken by celebrities who joined those calling for the prosecution of the officers who stopped McClain as he walked down the street in the city of Aurora after a 911 caller reported he looked suspicious.

Stories about McClain, a massage therapist family and friends described as a gentle and kind introvert, filled social media, including how he volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter.

Roedema and Rosenblatt also each face a charge of second-degree assault with intent to cause bodily injury and one count of a crime of violence related to the assault charge. Cooper and Cichuniec also each face three counts of second-degree assault.

“Our goal is to seek justice for Elijah McClain, for his family and his friends,” Weiser said at a brief news conference, which he left without taking questions.

“He was a son, a nephew, a brother, a friend. When he died he was only 23 years old,” Weiser said. “He had his whole life ahead of him. His family and his friends must now go on and live without him.”

Qusair Mohamedbhai, a lawyer for Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain said she “is overwhelmed emotionally by this news and appreciates the hard work of Phil Weiser and the rest of his team”.

Facing pressure during nationwide protests last year, Democratic Governor Jared Polis ordered Weiser to open a new criminal investigation. A district attorney had said in 2019 that he could not charge the officers because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died.

A memorial site across the street from where Elijah McClain was stopped by Aurora, Colorado, July 3 [File: David Zalubowski/AP]

McClain was stopped as he walked home from the store on August 24, 2019, after a 911 caller had reported a man wearing a ski mask and waving his hands who seemed “sketchy.” His family said McClain wore the mask because he had anaemia that caused him to get cold easily.

Police body camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain on the sidewalk and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”

In the video, the officer puts his hand on McClain’s shoulder and turns him around and repeats, “Stop tensing up.” As McClain verbally protests, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.” As the other officers join in to restrain McClain, he asks them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”

What happened next is not clear because all of the officers’ body cameras come off as they move McClain to the grass, but the officers and McClain can still be heard. An officer says McClain grabbed one of their guns. McClain can be heard trying to explain himself and sometimes crying out or sobbing. He says he cannot breathe and was just on his way home.

“I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me? I don’t do guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. … I am a vegetarian,” he said.

One officer eventually retrieves his camera, which shows McClain handcuffed, lying on his side and periodically vomiting as another officer leans on him. An officer who arrived later threatened to get his police dog to bite McClain.

Paramedics arrived and injected the 63.5-kilogram (140-pound) McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine – more than 1.5 times the dose for his weight.

The fire department is allowed to use the drug to sedate combative or aggressive people, but there is a lack of police training, conflicting medical standards and nonexistent protocols that have resulted in hospitalisations and even deaths when it is used during police encounters.

Within five minutes, according to a federal lawsuit from McClain’s family, he stopped breathing. He died six days later after being declared brain dead and taken off life support.

A lawsuit from the family alleges that McClain died as a result of a dramatic increase of lactic acid in his blood caused by excessive force used by police across about 18 minutes, combined with the effects of the ketamine. They claim that police continued to “torture” McClain even after he was restrained, treatment that they said is a result of the department’s history of “unconstitutional racist brutality.”

“Nothing will bring back my son, but I am thankful that his killers will finally be held accountable,”  LaWayne Mosley, McClain’s father, said in a statement on Wednesday.