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Colorado Grand Jury Indicts Police Officers, Paramedics for 2019 Death of Elijah McClain

© AP Photo / David ZalubowskiDemonstrators carry a banner while marching down Interstate 225 during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Aurora, Colo. McClain died in late August 2019 after he was stopped while walking to his apartment by three Aurora Police Department officers.
Demonstrators carry a banner while marching down Interstate 225 during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Aurora, Colo. McClain died in late August 2019 after he was stopped while walking to his apartment by three Aurora Police Department officers. - Sputnik International, 1920, 02.09.2021
Five activists successfully fought a slew of charges issued last year after helping organize Aurora, Colorado’s largest-ever protests, which demanded justice for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died after a confrontation initiated by police in which he was given a fatal dose of ketamine in an ostensible bid to calm him down.
A Colorado grand jury has brought charges against three police officers in the Denver suburb of Aurora, as well as two paramedics, in connection with McClain's August 2019 death.
Aurora Police Officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt, as well as fire department paramedic Jeremy Cooper and fire Lt. Peter Cichuniec, were charged on Wednesday with a total of 32 counts, including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, just over two years after McClain’s death, according to the Associated Press.
Roedema and Rosenblatt were also charged with second-degree assault with intent to cause bodily injury and one count of a crime of violence related to the charge, while Cooper and Cichuniec are facing three counts of second-degree assault.
​Under city law, any city employees charged with felony crimes are immediately suspended without pay. However, Rosenblatt had already been fired in 2020 alongside two other officers not mentioned in the indictment for unbecoming conduct in response to photos emerging on social media in which they mocked McClain’s death.
“I know this has been a long-awaited decision for Ms. McClain and her family. This tragedy will forever be imprinted on our community,” Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said, according to KDVR. “We continue to offer our condolences for the loss of Elijah, and we will continue to cooperate with the judicial process.”
“I hope they get life in prison,” Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, told Colorado Public Radio after the charges were announced. “To be honest with you, Elijah lost his life. You know, he didn’t grow up being a gang member, robbing banks. He didn’t grow up being a problem to anybody. He was living his life in the most peaceful way he possibly could.”

Police Stop Ends in McClain’s Death

The incident that led to Elijah’s death occurred on the evening of August 24, 2019, when he was walking home from the store wearing a hoodie and a local resident called the police, claiming he looked “sketchy.” When officers Woodyard, Rosenblatt and Rodema arrived, McClain didn’t immediately respond to them because he had headphones on, leading to a confrontation in which the officers tackled McClain to the ground and placed him in a headlock, briefly causing him to lose consciousness.
Footage from an officer’s body camera during the incident shows McClain apologizing and explaining “I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all … 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.”
After the officers told colleagues who arrived on the scene that McClain was “definitely on something” and had attacked them with “incredible, crazy strength,” the paramedics injected him with ketamine to sedate him. On the way to the hospital, he suffered cardiac arrest and died three days later.
​According to the coroner’s report, McClain received a much higher dose than he should have received given his weight. Numerous medical associations have objected to the nebulous concept of “excited delirium” the officers claimed he was suffering from, as well as the administration of ketamine to him at all. In July, the American Medical Association said in a revision of its policies that there was a pattern of the diagnosis and subsequent ketamine administration being used “as justification for excessive police force, disproportionately cited in cases where Black men die in law enforcement custody.”
People who knew McClain have denied he had a remotely aggressive demeanor, with one friend telling the Colorado Sentinel that “he was the sweetest, purest person I have ever met. He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.” A massage therapist, McClain also taught himself to play the violin, which he played for animals at a local animal shelter to soothe their anxiety.

Community Demands Justice

Woodyard, Rosenblatt and Roedema were subsequently exonerated of any wrongdoing by an internal police investigation and a subsequent review of their actions found them consistent with police training. The autopsy by the Aurora County coroner, which referenced police reports on how the incident unfolded, concluded that McClain was “violently struggling” with the officers, and it was “unclear” if their actions contributed to McClain’s death, which he said was most likely caused by McClain’s asthma.
However, an independent investigation commissioned by the Aurora City Council eviscerated the officers’ actions, finding that "Aurora police and paramedics made substantial errors at nearly every stage of their interaction with Elijah McClain and the detectives tasked with investigating the incident that led to the 23-year-old’s death stretched the truth to exonerate the officers involved."
The report further noted that “the body-worn camera audio, limited video, and Major Crimes’ interviews with the officers tell two contrasting stories. The officers’ statements on the scene and in subsequent recorded interviews suggest a violent and relentless struggle. The limited video, and the audio from the body-worn cameras, reveal Mr. McClain surrounded by officers, all larger than he, crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself, and pleading with the officers.”
In the aftermath of McClain’s death, a community movement emerged demanding the officers be fired and charged with murder, leading to the largest protests ever to occur in Aurora, which conceded with the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests provoked by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota, by city police officer Derek Chauvin. One of those protests involved a rally that surrounded one of the Aurora police precincts for several hours.
Months after the demonstrations, five of the leading activists who organized the protests were arrested in SWAT-style raids and charged with dozens of crimes, including that they had kidnapped the officers who were inside the precinct during the protest, and held them in jail for eight days without bond being set. As Sputnik reported, the activists’ detention was internationally condemned, and they successfully demonstrated in pre-trial hearings that the felony charges were trumped up accusations intended as retribution against the activists, causing them all to be dropped by May of 2021.
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