Elijah McClain: Trials End with Mixed Results for Colorado Police Officers Charged in Black Man's Death
On Nov. 6, Nathan Woodyard, another police officer accused of criminal behavior in connection with the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, was found not guilty of all charges arising from his involvement in the tragic incident.
The killing of McClain, an unarmed Black man, gained national attention in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the related social justice protests of 2020. Although prosecutors initially declined to pursue any charges in connection with McClain's death, in 2021, a special prosecutor launched a renewed investigation into the incident. As a result, a Colorado grand jury issued criminal indictments for five of the emergency responders involved in McClain's death.
Officer Woodyard is the second of three officers from the Aurora Police Department to be acquitted, joining officer Jason Rosenblatt, who was also found not guilty after a trial last month.
Fellow officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and assault, and he still awaits sentencing. Notably, Roedema was the officer heard on camera shouting that McClain was reaching for another officer's firearm, a claim contradicted by the video footage.
Two paramedics, accused of administering a lethal dose of ketamine to McClain at the scene of the incident, still await their criminal trials later this month.
The Elijah McClain Death
Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was killed as a result of a tragic encounter with police in Aurora, Colorado on August 24, 2019. A 9-1-1 caller had reported a "suspicious" black man wearing a ski mask and moving erratically but also stated that they did not believe the man to be dangerous.
When police officers found McClain, they physically restrained him, applied carotid holds, handcuffed him, and brought him to the ground. They held him on the ground for fifteen minutes, and during that time McClain struggled to breathe and vomited repeatedly. When paramedics arrived, the responding officers claimed that McClain attacked them with "crazy strength" and was "on something." The paramedics injected McClain with a dose of the sedative ketamine before transferring him into an ambulance. He died in the hospital six days later from complications resulting from the incident.
It is unclear what crime, if any, the officers were investigating when they subdued McClain. In 2021, an independent investigation concluded that the Aurora police had no legal justification to stop McClain from walking, arrest him, or use any physical force in the encounter.
Civil Liability and Structural Change
In 2021, the City of Aurora agreed to pay a 15-million-dollar settlement in response to a civil lawsuit brought by McClain's parents. At that time, it was the largest settlement in a police misconduct case in Colorado history. The Colorado Attorney General also issued findings critical of the Aurora Police Department, finding that the department had engaged in race-based policing and routinely used excessive force.
In addition to the cash settlement, the officers involved were all either fired or suspended by the police department, with Roedema finally fired after the jury returned a guilty verdict in his criminal trial. Moreover, the carotid hold used by officers to restrain McClain has been banned by the police department, and the use of ketamine and other drugs to subdue suspects was restricted by Colorado legislation passed in 2021.
Next Trials to Focus on Controversial Medical Practice
Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, the two paramedics charged in connection with McClain's death, will face trial later this month. Jury selection is scheduled for November 17. The defense in the police trials repeatedly claimed that the administration of ketamine by paramedics, and not the actions of police, caused McClain's death. In the upcoming trials, that causation argument is likely to be taken up by the prosecution.
Experts at the previous trials explained that the 500mg dose of ketamine given to McClain would have been the appropriate dose for a much larger person, but it was nearly double the correct dosage for someone the size of McClain, who weighed only 140 pounds. A subsequent investigation of the incident concluded that the paramedics did not attempt to speak with McClain or evaluate his physical condition before injecting him with the sedative. Other medical experts question the use of ketamine in these situations entirely - arguing that there is no medical justification for categorizing a person as being under "excited delirium" or using ketamine on handcuffed suspects.
The defense for the two paramedics will likely focus on the perceived urgency of the situation, based on information they received at the scene from the police officers. They will argue that, in the heat of the moment, there was no time for the paramedics to weigh McClain, and regardless of dispute over the practice of using ketamine, the paramedics acted consistently with their training in a high-pressure situation.
- Police Brutality Lawsuits (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Are Police Allowed to Racially Profile? (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Excessive Force and Police Brutality (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
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