By Colleen Slevin
DENVER (AP) — Three suburban Denver police officers and two paramedics were indicted on manslaughter and other charges in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man put into a chokehold and injected with a powerful sedative in a fatal encounter that provoked national outcry during racial injustice protests last year.
The grand jury indictments announced Wednesday by state Attorney General Phil Weiser are the latest chapter for the Police Department in the city of Aurora, which has been plagued by allegations of misconduct against people of color, including a officer charged this summer with pistol-whipping a Black man.
McClain’s death helped inspire a sweeping police accountability law in Colorado, a ban on chokeholds and restrictions on the use of the sedative ketamine, both of which the indictment alleges contributed to his death. The charges were announced days after the second anniversary of when police stopped McClain on the street after a 911 caller reported a man who seemed “sketchy.”
“What I set out to do is still not over, but I’m halfway there. I’m halfway there,” McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, told The Associated Press of her efforts to hold police accountable.
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who took over last year and has pledged to work to restore public trust, said the department will continue to cooperate with the judicial process.
“I know this has been a long-awaited decision for Ms. McClain and her family. This tragedy will forever be imprinted on our community,” she said in a statement.
Officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt and fire department paramedic Jeremy Cooper and fire Lt. Peter Cichuniec were charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Roedema and Rosenblatt also were charged with 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.
Lawyers for the defendants didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Marc Sears, president of Aurora’s branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, which says it’s the largest union representing police in the city, told the Sentinel Colorado newspaper that “our officers are innocent until proven guilty, and we stand by our brothers.”
City Manager Jim Twombly said the officers were indefinitely suspended. One had previously been fired.
The indictment says police responding to a 911 call about a suspicious person confronted McClain on Aug. 24, 2019, as he walked home from a grocery store after buying iced tea. The encounter quickly escalated, with McClain initially losing consciousness as Woodyard applied a chokehold. McClain complained he couldn’t breathe as three officers held him, handcuffed, on the ground, and he vomited several times.
Paramedics injected McClain with an amount of ketamine appropriate for someone 77 pounds (35 kilograms) heavier than his 143-pound (64-kilogram) frame, the indictment says, without determining if it was necessary and without monitoring him for side effects afterward.
McClain never regained consciousness and was later declared brain dead at a hospital.
Family and friends described McClain, a massage therapist, as a gentle and kind introvert who volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter. His pleading words captured on police body camera video — “I’m just different” — painfully underscored his apparent confusion at what was happening.
In 2019, a district attorney said he could not charge the officers because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered Weiser to open a criminal investigation last year amid nationwide protests over racist policing, and the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI said they were looking at opening a civil rights investigation. Weiser’s office is conducting a probe into the overall conduct of Aurora police, the first under the new police accountability law.
It’s very rare for officers to face criminal charges in on-duty deaths, and it’s almost unheard of for paramedics to be charged, said Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” he said. The fact that a grand jury saw the evidence and decided what charges to file is an indication of a strong case, Piquero said.
A family lawsuit alleges McClain died as a result of a dramatic increase of lactic acid in his blood caused by excessive force used by police over about 18 minutes, combined with the effects of ketamine. They claim police continued to “torture” McClain after he was restrained, a result of the department’s history of “unconstitutional racist brutality.”
A city review found no evidence to justify officers stopping McClain, who was wearing a ski mask because family said he had anemia that caused him to get cold easily.
Police body camera video shows an officer approaching McClain and saying, “I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
“I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all,” McClain exclaims as he’s being restrained. “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.”
The indictment comes after three Aurora officers, including Rosenblatt, were fired and one resigned last year over photos mimicking the chokehold used on McClain.
The department also faced criticism when officers put four Black girls on the ground last year and handcuffed two of them next to a car that police suspected was stolen but turned out not to be.
And an officer was charged with assault in July after being captured on body camera video pistol-whipping and choking a Black man during an arrest. Another officer was charged with not intervening as required under the new police accountability law.
Deborah Richardson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said the indictment is one step to changing the “deeply embedded systemic failures of the city of Aurora.”
“Historically, the internal culture of policing normalized the treatment Mr. McClain experienced and was callously written off. Hopefully, this law enforcement abuse will no longer be tolerated,” Richardson said.
Associated Press writers James Anderson and Patty Nieberg in Denver and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed.