ABOVE PHOTO: In this Oct. 1, 2019, file photograph, the father of Elijah McClain, LaWayne Mosley, left, and mother, Sheneen McClain, right, flank the family’s lawyer, Mari Newman, during a protest outside city hall in Aurora, Colo. Elijah McClain died after being stopped by three police officers while walking in the east Denver suburb of Aurora. (Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado via AP, File)
By Colleen Slevin
DENVER — Three suburban Denver police officers and two paramedics were indicted on manslaughter and other charges in the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was put in a chokehold and injected with a powerful sedative two years ago, Colorado’s attorney general said Wednesday.
The 23-year-old’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 captured on police body camera video — “I’m just different” — were 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 that he looked suspicious.
Stories about McClain, a massage therapist described by family and friends as a gentle and kind introvert, filled social media, including how he volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter.
The Aurora Police Department has been plagued by allegations of misconduct against people of color, including a officer charged this summer with pistol-whipping a Black man. The department’s new chief has vowed to work to rebuild public trust.
Attorney General Phil Weiser said a grand jury indicted Officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt and fire department paramedic Jeremy Cooper and fire Lt. Peter Cichuniec on charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Roedema and Rosenblatt also each 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.
The Associated Press has sought comment from lawyers for the defendants. The Aurora Police Association said there was no evidence the officers caused McClain’s death.
“The hysterical overreaction to this case has severely damaged the police department,” the union said in a statement.
At a brief news conference, Weiser said the goal was to seek justice for McClain and his loved ones.
“He was a son, a nephew, a brother, a friend,” Weiser said. “He had his whole life ahead of him.”
Mother Sheneen McClain “is overwhelmed emotionally by this news and appreciates the hard work of Phil Weiser and the rest of his team. There is not a day that goes by that she does not think of her son Elijah,” according to a statement from her lawyer, Qusair Mohamedbhai.
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.
Facing pressure during nationwide protests last year, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered Weiser to open a new criminal investigation. In 2019, a district attorney said he could not charge the officers because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died.
It’s one of several investigations, including separate reviews of McClain’s arrest commissioned by the city and a comprehensive review of the Police Department. The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI also announced a civil rights investigation into McClain’s death, while Weiser’s office is conducting a similar probe into the agency, the first under a new Colorado police accountability law.
Aurora’s highly critical review did not find any evidence to justify officers stopping McClain as he walked home from the store on Aug. 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 anemia that caused him to get cold easily.
Police body camera video shows an officer approaching McClain on the sidewalk and saying, “I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
The officer turns McClain around and says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.” As other officers help restrain McClain, he asks them to let go, saying, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”
The officers’ body cameras come off as they move McClain to the grass, but an officer can be heard saying McClain grabbed one of their guns. McClain tries to explain and sometimes cries out or sobs. He says he can’t 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,” 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.
Paramedics arrived and injected the 140-pound (63.5-kilogram) McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine — more than 1 1/2 times the dose for his weight. The fire department is allowed to use the drug to sedate combative or aggressive people, but there’s a lack of police training, conflicting medical standards and nonexistent protocols that have resulted in hospitalizations and even deaths when it’s used during police encounters.
Within five minutes, according to a federal lawsuit from McClain’s family, he stopped breathing. He was later declared brain dead and taken off life support.
A pathologist who conducted an autopsy said a combination of a narrowed coronary artery and physical exertion contributed to McClain’s death. Dr. Stephen Cina found no evidence of a ketamine overdose and said several other possibilities could not be ruled out, including an unexpected reaction to ketamine or the chokehold causing an irregular heartbeat.
The family’s 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 the ketamine. They claim that police continued to “torture” McClain after he was restrained, a result of the department’s history of “unconstitutional racist brutality.”
The chokehold used on McClain has been banned by police departments and some states, including Colorado, following Floyd’s killing.
The attorney general’s announcement comes after three Aurora officers, including Rosenblatt — one of those charged in McClain’s death — were fired and one resigned last year over photos mimicking the chokehold used on the 23-year-old.
Police Chief Vanessa Wilson vowed change but spent her first days in the job last year apologizing after officers put four Black girls on the ground and handcuffed two of them next to a car that police suspected was stolen but turned out not to be.
In July, an Aurora police officer was charged with assault 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.