Aurora cops, medics plead not guilty in Elijah McClain case

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DENVER | A group of police officers and paramedics pleaded not guilty Friday to charges stemming from the role they are accused of playing in the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was forcibly restrained and injected with the powerful sedative ketamine.

They were indicted by a state grand jury on manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges in 2021. Two years earlier, McClain died after being stopped while walking down the street in Aurora. A 911 caller had reported a man who seemed “sketchy.”

An amended autopsy report released last year concluded that McClain would have most likely survived but for the administration of a dose of ketamine that was higher than recommended for someone his size. However, the manner of McClain’s death was still listed as undetermined, not a homicide.

McClain’s death fueled renewed scrutiny about the use of the ketamine and led Colorado’s health department to issue a rule limiting when emergency workers can use it.

Experts in emergency medicine say prosecutions of paramedics are rare. However, in Illinois, two paramedics who strapped a Black man facedown on a stretcher after police requested an ambulance last month have been charged with murder.

Police officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt, and fire department paramedic Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec all pleaded not guilty during a hearing in Adams County District Court in Brighton. They did not say anything about the allegations.

A grand jury indicted them after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered Attorney General Phil Weiser to open a criminal investigation into the case. There had been renewed national interest in McClain’s death as protesters rallied over the killing of George Floyd in 2020. In 2021, the city of Aurora agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents for $15 million.

On Wednesday, 17th Judicial District Judge Mark Douglas Warner ruled that there will be three separate trials in connection to the indictments because each group played separate roles in McClain’s death. Roedema and Rosenblatt and Cooper and Cichuniec will be tried as pairs and Woodyard will have his own trial. Woodyard alone placed McClain in a carotid control hold, which Warner said could have injured McClain and contributed to his death in a unique way.

The three separate trials will ensure that the case, which has already had multiple delays, extends well into the year. Lawyers for Rosenblatt and Roedema estimated that their trial would take about three weeks, along with multiple days for jury selection due to the high-profile nature of the case. At the hearing all five defendants agreed to extend their right to a speedy trial, which typically is a six-month period, for an extra one to three months.

Rosenblatt and Roedema’s trial is scheduled to start on July 11, Cooper and Cichuniec’s on August 7 and Woodyard’s not until September 18. At the hearing prosecutors said they specifically want to try the cases in that order.

Warner denied requests by the defendants’ lawyers to postpone the arraignments due to the amount of discovery that has continued to be submitted in the case, which runs into the thousands of pages. Prosecutors argued that much of it is repetitive information that the defense has already received. Warner also ruled that the defense attorneys have 56 days after Friday’s hearing to submit any further motions they plan to make.

McClain, a massage therapist, was unarmed and had not been accused of committing any crime. According to the indictment, he was walking home from a grocery store in 2019 after buying iced tea wearing a ski mask, months before the pandemic made face coverings common. The encounter quickly escalated, with McClain initially losing consciousness after a chokehold was applied by police. McClain, whom relatives say wore the mask because anemia made him cold, complained he couldn’t breathe as three officers held him handcuffed on the ground, and he vomited several times.

Polis ordered the state investigation after a former district attorney said he could not file charges because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died. His death helped inspire a sweeping police accountability law in Colorado, a ban on chokeholds and restrictions on the use of the sedative ketamine.

The amended autopsy report released in September said McClain died as the result of complications of ketamine administration after being forcibly restrained. In it, Dr. Stephen Cina, a pathologist, said he could not rule out that changes in McClain’s blood chemistry, like an increase in lactic acid, due to his exertion while being restrained by police contributed to his death but concluded there was no evidence that injuries inflicted by police caused his death. The indictment said McClain had low oxygen and too much acid in his blood.

Family and friends described McClain 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 an interview with The Sentinel on Thursday, McClain’s mother Sheneen McClain said she had little, if any faith in the judicial system to deliver justice in her son’s death. She also expressed frustration that only five people were criminally charged when over two dozen first responders were at the scene.

“In my opinion everyone that was there that night and did nothing to help my son stay alive are all accessories to my son’s murder,” she said.

— Sentinel staff writer Carina Julig contributed to this report

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