2 paramedics found guilty in death of Elijah McClain, who they injected with an overdose of ketamine

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BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — Two Denver-area paramedics were convicted Friday for giving a fatal overdose of the sedative ketamine to Elijah McClain in 2019 — a jury verdict that experts said could have a chilling effect on first responders around the country.

The case over the 23-year-old Black man’s death was the first among several recent criminal prosecutions against medical first responders to reach trial, potentially setting the bar for prosecutors in future cases.

It also was the last of three trials against police and paramedics charged in the death of McClain, whose case received little attention until protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. An Aurora police officer was convicted of homicide and third degree assault earlier this year, while two officers were acquitted.

The jury found Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec guilty of criminally negligent homicide following a weekslong trial in state district court. The jury also found Cichuniec guilty on one of two second-degree assault charges. Cooper was found not guilty on the assault charges. They could face years in prison at sentencing.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom. “We did it! We did it! We did it!” she said.

Cichuniec’s wife had her head bowed down as deputies prepared to handcuff him and take him into custody. Cooper’s wife sobbed alongside her. Cooper was not taken into custody.

Neither the paramedics nor their attorneys spoke outside court and they didn’t immediately respond to emails and text messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The outcome could set a precedent for how emergency personnel respond to situations with people in police custody, said University of Miami criminologist Alex Piquero.

“Imagine if you’re a paramedic,” Piquero said. “They could be hesitant. They could say, ‘I’m not going to do anything’ or ‘I’m going to do less. I don’t want to be found guilty.'”

The International Association of Fire Fighters said that in pursuing the charges, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser had criminalized split-second medical decisions and set “a dangerous, chilling precedent for pre-hospital care.”

“When politics drive prosecution — forcing fire fighters and paramedics to second-guess decisions — public safety is compromised,” association president Edward Kelly said in a statement.

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

Police stopped McClain while he was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, following a suspicious person complaint. After an officer said McClain reached for an officer’s gun — a claim disputed by prosecutors — another officer put him in a neck hold that rendered him temporarily unconscious. Officers also pinned down 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 conduct basic medical checks of McClain, such as taking his pulse, before giving him the ketamine. The dose was too much for someone of his size — 140 pounds (64 kilograms), experts testified. Prosecutors say they also did not monitor McClain immediately after giving him the sedative but instead left him lying on the ground, making it harder to breathe.

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

In a statement released prior to the verdict, McClain’s mother said that everyone present during the police stop of her son displayed a lack of humanity.

“They can not blame their job training for their indifference to evil or their participation in an evil action,” McClain wrote. “That is completely on them. May all of their souls rot in hell when their time comes.”

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

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

In the Colorado case, the prosecution said Cooper lied to investigators to try to cover up his actions, telling detectives that McClain was actively resisting when he decided to inject McClain with ketamine, even though the body camera showed McClain lying on the ground unconscious. It also disputed Cooper’s claim that McClain tried to get away from police holding him down — and that he took McClain’s pulse as he bent down to give him the shot of ketamine, which others testified they did not see.

“He’s trying to cover up the recklessness of his conduct,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber told jurors in closing statements.

Cichuniec, who testified along with Cooper this week, said paramedics were trained that they had to work quickly to treat excited delirium with ketamine and said they were told numerous times that it was a safe, effective drug and were not warned about the possibility of it killing anyone.

Colorado now tells paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having the controversial condition, which has symptoms including increased strength and has been associated with racial bias against Black men.

Local authorities in 2019 decided against criminal charges because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office to take another look at the case in 2020 and a grand jury indicted the officers and paramedics in 2021.

When the police stopped McClain, a massage therapist, he was listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face because he had a blood circulation disorder. The police stop quickly became physical after McClain, seemingly caught off guard, asked to be left alone. He had not been accused of committing any crime.

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

Prosecutors refuted that McClain ever tried to grab an officer’s gun and no such action is seen in body camera footage.

McClain was injected with ketamine as Roedema — and another officer, who was not charged — held him on the ground. McClain went into cardiac arrest en route 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 lead to a sentence of anywhere from probation to prison time.

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



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