Five people, including three Aurora police officers and two paramedics, were charged with one count of manslaughter and one count of criminally negligent homicide in the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, a Black man who died in 2019 after being placed in a chokehold and injected with a strong sedative.
An indictment was filed in Adams County District Court on Tuesday, Aug. 31, after Colorado’s statewide grand jury returned a decision bringing 32 charges against the paramedics and officers two years after McClain’s August 2019 death. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced the decision on Wednesday, Sept. 1.
The indicted Aurora officers are Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema. The indicted Aurora Fire and Rescue paramedics are Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec.
All five also face crime of violence and assault charges in McClain’s death.
In Colorado, manslaughter is a Class 4 felony punishable by up to six years in prison while criminally negligent homicide, a Class 5 felony, is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Ahead of the jury’s decision, McClain’s mother Sheneen McClain told Colorado Public Radio she hoped the officers and paramedics involved in her son’s death would receive life sentences.
“I hope they get life in prison. To be honest with you, Elijah lost his life,” she said. “You know, he didn’t grow up being a gang member, robbing banks. He didn’t grow up being a problem to anybody. He was living his life in the most peaceful way he possibly could.”
Weiser said he was asked by Gov. Jared Polis to investigate the case last summer after Aurora Police conducted an investigation and cleared the officers of wrongdoing while the Adams County District Attorney declined to bring charges.
“As you know there was an initial investigation into McClain’s death, which was limited,” Weiser said at a Wednesday press conference. “Whenever a person dies after an encounter with law enforcement the community deserves a thorough investigation, Mr. McClain’s family deserves it and justice requires it.”
The investigation began in January 2021. Weiser also said the pandemic delayed the process of convening a statewide grand jury, which met weekly up until last Thursday.
“Our goal is to seek justice for Elijah McClain, for his family and friends and for our state. In so doing, we advance the rule of law and the commitment that everyone is accountable and equal under the law,” Weiser said. “We want you to understand that we are limited in what we can say and we’ll do our talking in court.”
McClain was confronted by Aurora officers on Aug. 24, 2019, as he walked home from a convenience store, wearing an open-face ski mask. Aurora police said they received a call about a suspicious person and dispatched three officers, including Woodyard, Rosenblatt and Roedema.
Police say McClain “resisted contact” when approached by officers and continued walking down the street before “a struggle ensued.”
Officers claimed McClain tried to reach for an officer’s gun, but later gave conflicting reports about whose gun he’d reached for as they’d noted. McClain was placed into a carotid hold, a move that involves cutting off a person’s blood flow to the brain by placing pressure on the neck. Woodyard applied the hold, according to the 33-page indictment.
When paramedics arrived, they injected McClain with a 500mg dose of ketamine, a powerful sedative. The dose is suitable for a 200-pound person, while McClain weighed 143 pounds. On the way to the hospital, McClain went into cardiac arrest and was taken off life support on Aug. 30.
“McClain was a normal, healthy 23-year-old man prior to encountering law enforcement and medical response personnel,” the indictment says. “A forensic pathologist opined that the cause of death for Mr. McClain was complications following acute ketamine administration during violent subdual and restraint by law enforcement and emergency response personnel. And the manner of death was homicide.”
Roedema, Woodyard, Cooper and Cichuniec have been suspended without pay indefinitely as the city’s policy for every civil service employee indicted on a felony charge. Rosenblatt was fired last year for responding “ha ha” to a text messages image of officers reenacting the chokehold used on McClain.
Sheneen McClain told the Colorado Sun after learning about the indictment, “I’ve been crying just thinking about the process that it’s took after two years to get this report.” She added, “I’m overwhelmed. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, honestly. I had no expectations, honestly.”
McClain’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Aurora Police Department and the Aurora Fire and Rescue Department. Federal authorities are also investigating the case.