AURORA | Attorneys delivered opening arguments Wednesday in the case of Aurora police officer Randy Roedema and ex-officer Jason Rosenblatt, who in 2019 helped restrain and choke Elijah McClain during an encounter that led to the 23-year-old’s death.
While prosecutors described how McClain was not suspected of any crime when police tackled him, pinned him to the ground and ignored his pleas that he was unable to breathe, lawyers representing the two Aurora cops blamed McClain’s death on an overdose of ketamine administered by paramedics, arguing that the two had done what they could to help McClain.
“They’re not trying to physically harm him. They’re not trying to beat him,” said Harvey Steinberg, an attorney representing Rosenblatt. “I understand that the sympathy is tremendous here. I get that. But the law requires you to move that out of this equation.”
The trial comes more than four years after the fatal encounter, which led to public outrage, major protests and calls to reform the Aurora Police Department and Colorado law enforcement agencies in general to address the phenomenon of racially-biased policing.
A grand jury convened by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office indicted Roedema and Rosenblatt on charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault in 2021 after former Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to press charges against the police officers involved.
Criminal charges were also brought against officer Nathan Woodyard and Aurora FIre Rescue paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, whose trials are scheduled to start later this year. All have pleaded not guilty.
On Wednesday, a jury for Roedema and Rosenblatt’s case was sworn in, and prosecutors working on behalf of the state laid out their case against the two officers. Elijah’s mother, Sheneen, was present along with others supporting the family. Jonathan Bunge, a prosecutor working on behalf of Weiser’s office, said the two officers had failed to live up to their duties as public servants.
“With that badge comes extraordinary power,” he said. “But with that badge also comes great responsibility and a promise to be accountable to the persons that the police have promised to protect and serve. In this case, that promise, that pledge, was broken.”
Bunge described McClain as a gentle and physically small man who was often cold, which he said explained why McClain was wearing a jacket and a face mask when a teenager called 911 on the evening of Aug. 24, 2019 to report McClain’s behavior as “sketchy.”
Bunge said McClain was wearing in-ear headphones and dancing while returning from a store with a bag that contained cans of iced tea at the time. He described the escalating force used by police to the jury, with officers confronting McClain, then putting their hands on him while telling him not to “tense up.”
“They grabbed him on this dark night at 10:46 p.m. on a residential street with nobody else around, without any explanation for what was going on,” Bunge said. “Anyone in this position would tense up. … Two of those officers have 45 pounds on Elijah. One has 80 pounds and 7 inches on Elijah.”
Still, he said McClain did not try to flee from the officers. As the officers argued with McClain, Roedema told Rosenblatt that McClain had tried to grab Rosenblatt’s gun. Bunge pointed out that officers’ body-worn camera footage did not show this and that Rosenblatt was recorded saying he did not feel McClain grabbing his gun.
McClain was then taken to the ground by officers and was restrained for about 15 minutes of the roughly 18-minute encounter, with Roedema putting pressure on McClain’s back and Rosenblatt controlling his legs, Bunge said. He said Rosenblatt and Woodyard both applied a carotid control hold on McClain, which is meant to incapacitate a person by cutting off the flow of blood to the brain.
Bunge said police department policy clearly stated that carotid holds should not be repeatedly applied to the same person and that officers should medically assess a suspect after such a hold is used, which didn’t happen in McClain’s case. As he was restrained on the ground, McClain told officers seven times that he was having difficulty breathing, a plea for help that Bunge said officers ignored.
“He struggles and struggles for breath and deteriorates more and more as these 18 minutes and two seconds continue,” he said.
Bunge said police also neglected to mention McClain’s pleas to paramedics, instead telling them about McClain’s “crazy strength,” which influenced the medics’ diagnosis of excited delirium. The paramedics subsequently injected McClain with what forensic pathologist Stephen Cina later described as an overdose of the sedative drug ketamine while Roedema held McClain down.
“What is the consequence for Elijah McClain? He is drifting further and further toward death, and a sedative is the last thing he needs,” Bunge said.
McClain suffered cardiac arrest and was later declared brain dead. He was removed from life support Aug. 30.
The defense rebutted Bunge’s argument that the officers acted outside of policy and wanted to hurt McClain, pointing out that they had contacted Aurora Fire Rescue and a police supervisor, and rolled McClain into a recovery position after putting him in a chokehold, which was consistent with Aurora police guidelines.
“Just because a tragedy occurred does not mean criminality occurred,” said Reid Elkus, an attorney representing Roedema. “If these officers are acting according to training, policy and general best practices, that’s not criminal.”
Elkus justified the three officers’ response to the suspicious persons call by pointing out that the area near the intersection of Billings Street and Colfax Avenue where McClain was walking was considered a “high-crime” area by Aurora police. He said it was standard practice for three officers to respond to calls in areas with that designation.
Elkus insisted that McClain had tried to grab an officer’s gun during the encounter and questioned why Roedema would have been untruthful. He said officers would have been justified in using an even greater degree of force given this alleged act by McClain.
He also said that paramedics alone were responsible for the diagnosis of excited delirium and the decision to administer ketamine.
“Mr. Cooper was the one who administered 500 milligrams of ketamine to Elijah McClain,” Elkus said. “And once he injected Mr. McClain with ketamine, that is when Mr. McClain went into a (sedated) state. After being injected with ketamine, that is when Mr. McClain experienced respiratory depression.”
He and Steinberg both encouraged jurors not to be swayed by their gut reactions to the body-worn camera footage showing McClain’s last moments of consciousness.
“For the uninitiated, such as yourselves, this may seem eye-popping, maybe even disturbing. But there will be people who will tell you that what you saw in that video were the policies and training of the Aurora Police Department,” Elkus told jurors.
Steinberg used the phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” to describe police officers’ obligation to respond to calls where they may have to use force that could later result in them facing professional consequences.
He brought up a segment of the 911 call that summoned police officers, in which the caller said they didn’t know if McClain was a “good person or a bad person.”
“What is a police officer supposed to do? You’re supposed to find out,” Steinberg said.
The jury empaneled Wednesday was composed of seven men and seven women, including two alternates.
While the defense challenged the prosecution’s decision to remove numerous potential jurors, Adams County judge Mark Warner found that the jurors were not removed because of their race.