Paramedics who administered ketamine to Elijah McClain found guilty of homicide

Paramedics who administered ketamine to Elijah McClain found guilty of homicide
Paramedics who administered ketamine to Elijah McClain found guilty of homicide

ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. — Jurors Friday convicted two Aurora paramedics of criminally negligent homicide but were split on the charges regarding the unlawful administration of ketamine in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who was injected with a heavy dose of the powerful sedative after a violent encounter with police that ultimately led to his death a few days later.

The verdict was reached after two days of deliberations by a jury who found itself split by late Friday afternoon, with some of the jurors telling Judge Mark D. Warner they were “hopelessly deadlocked” on some of the charges against the paramedics.

The judge instructed them to return to the deliberation room so they could come to reach a decision, which they reached by around 5:20 p.m.

The 12-person jury found Aurora paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec guilty of criminally negligent homicide after administering a deadly dose of ketamine to McClain, who had been put in a neck hold and pinned down by police after a 911 caller reported a “sketchy” man in the neighborhood the night of his violent arrest on Aug. 24, 2019.

But the jury did not believe Cooper and Cichuniec were guilty of second-degree assault — attempt to cause bodily injury/causing serious bodily injury. They did, however, find Chichuniec guilty of second-degree assault — unlawful administration of drugs with a crime of violence enhancer. Cooper was acquitted of that charge.

Cichuniec will be remanded until sentencing due to the crime of violence sentence enhancer. Cooper is free on bail until sentencing. Sentencing for both paramedics is scheduled for March 1, 2024.

Paramedics who administered ketamine to Elijah McClain found guilty of criminally negligent homicide

“We knew these cases would be difficult to prosecute. We are satisfied with today’s verdict, and we are confident that bringing these cases to trial was the right thing to do for justice, for Elijah McClain, and for healing in the Aurora community,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser outside court Friday evening. “Indeed, the prosecution teams in the three trials brought to light the events that occurred that dark night. The world — Elijah and especially his mother Sheneen McClain — deserved to have the full story told. And justice demanded it.”

Weiser added that accountability for officers who “unnecessarily escalate situations that don’t call for the use of force” won’t end with these trials, and that Colorado must continue its work “to improve policing and emergency response and build trust between law enforcement “First responders, and the people they are sworn to protect. We must do everything we can to prevent these tragedies.”

Cooper and Cichuniec – along with three Aurora police officers – were indicted by a grand jury in Sept. 2021, more than two years after McClain’s death and about a year after the unarmed Black man’s death had garnered attention in the wake of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the spring of 2020.

Former Aurora Police Officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault while former Aurora Police Officer Jason Rosenblatt was acquitted of all charges in a joint trial that lasted nearly a month. Nathan Woodyard, the third officer indicted in the case, was also acquitted of all charges following his trial late last month and will be reinstated within the Aurora Police Department.

“Deeply concerned and disappointed”

In a statement, Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Alec Oughton said that while he appreciated the jury’s diligence, integrity and public service to ensure a fair trail for both Cooper and Cichuniec, he was “deeply concerned and disappointed” in the outcome.

“I am discouraged that these paramedics have received criminal punishment for following their training and protocols in place at the time and for making discretionary decisions while taking split-second action in a dynamic environment,” Oughton wrote, adding that his department is committed to making improvements to Aurora Fire Rescue.

Some of the changes that have since taken place since McClain’s deadly arrest include the re-establishment of a medical branch to enhance oversight of the department’s emergency medical procedures and incidents; new protocols to clarify who is in charge when multiple agencies are on scene; the implementation of a quality-assurance review on all sedative administration; the creation of new citywide protocols to dispatch the appropriate level of care to each call received by Aurora911; and increased input and coordination from Aurora residents to understand how AFR can better serve them.

“On behalf of all the members of Aurora Fire Rescue, I’d like to first express my deepest condolences to Elijah McClain’s family for their tragic loss in August 2019,” the chief said. “As Fire Chief overseeing Aurora Fire Rescue, I take responsibility for the safekeeping of our community and our team of professionals that serve them.”

Per Aurora’s city’s charter, both paramedics were relieved of their employment following Friday’s conviction.

How the cases were brought to trial

The charges against all five stemmed from McClain’s deadly arrest the night of Aug. 24, 2019, after Woodyard put the unarmed 23-year-old in a neck hold that rendered him unconscious as paramedics arrived at the scene to inject him with a heavier dose of ketamine than was appropriate for his weight. While the neck hold proved to be the catalyst for the protests that would follow months later, officials eventually determined the sedative played a key role in his death. McClain, a massage therapist known for his gentle nature, was just walking home from a convenience store after purchasing some iced tea. He had committed no crime.

Dr. Stephen Cina, a pathologist whose autopsy report initially stated that McClain’s cause of death was “undetermined,” would later amend it to list “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint” after receiving “extensive body camera footage, witness statements, and additional records” that gave him more detail about what happened to McClain the night of his arrest.

“I believe that Mr. McClain would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine,” Cina would write in his amended autopsy report.

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Paramedics made “decision after decision and every single one ignored the risks”

In closing arguments, prosecutors alleged both Cooper and Cichuniec “made a plan” that fell outside standards of care by leaving McClain helpless after administering ketamine and not checking his deteriorating medical condition.

Both paramedics “made decision after decision and every single one ignored (the) risks” to McClain, said Ann Joyce, assistant attorney general in department of law with the Colorado General Attorney’s Office, as she outlined a series of excuses she said both defendants used to explain why they didn’t check on him or ask police any questions that would better inform him about McClain’s worsening outcome before administering a higher dose of the sedative than what was appropriate for McClain.

“They both decided to give (him) the ketamine. They both decided to give him 500mg… they are both responsible,” Joyce said.

A “very complex and complicated case”

Lawyers for the defense, however, argued that paramedics responded the best way they could to a situation they encountered, and that they were trained that using ketamine can help patients who need to be sedated due to “excited delirium,” a controversial and widely rejected medical condition that is characterized by agitation, aggression, acute distress and sudden death — a condition paramedics said McClain had at the time of his arrest.

Cooper’s defense attorney, Michael Pellow, told jurors in closing arguments that the protocol paramedics had to follow at the time was to “treat aggressively” when encountering an agitated patient since they could die if medical care wasn’t administered. But, he argued, what wasn’t in the protocol at the time was what paramedics were supposed to do when “police are all over a potential patient,” as was the case with McClain that night.

“It makes us sick to watch a video that you know how it’s going to turn out — the sad, terrible ending to it. We all have hindsight at this point,” Pellow told the court. “But they didn’t.”

Pellow argued that throughout the course of the trial, “nine paramedics or former paramedics testified in this trial — none said paramedics were outside standard of care.”

David Goddard, the defense attorney for Cichuniec, on the other hand, told oaths that “the relevant question here is not whether McClain was suffering from excited delirium, but rather, the relevant question is whether it’s reasonable for these two gentlemen who believe he was suffering from excited delirium (to do as they did… and whether that was) consistent with what their training and protocol told them.”

Goddard walked the jurors through the timeline of events as the paramedics saw them: Paramedics arrived at the scene and saw McClain on the ground being held down by several officers who were commanding him to stop fighting and resisting.

“At that point in time, they don’t have access to McClain. It appears to them that police are actively struggling with the patient,” Goddard said. “So they wait. They are powerless to do anything about it.”

Cichuniec’s defense countered the prosecution’s argument that McClain was not rendered appropriate aid when paramedics got to the scene, “despite testimony that visual assessment is appropriate and within the standard of care.”

“What did Cichuniec do to cause McClains’ death? He made sure the scene was safe, gave instructions for the ambulance to drive there, listed out the tools they would need over the phone, he brought the gurney to McClain’s side,” Goddard countered . “He is not guilty. They are both not guilty.”

Paramedics “treated Elijah McClain like he was a problem”

Rebutting the defense’s closing arguments, Jason Slothouber, senior prosecutor for the Colorado Attorney General, told paramedics “treated McClain like he was a problem, not like he was their patient.”

Slothouber argued that because paramedics assumed they were dealing with a “young man fighting with police,” it was more convenient for them to not get close or determine if McClain was really under a state of excited delirium.

“This is not a situation where there was good effort and a mistake was made. These defendants did not even try,” Slothouber said. “They come up, look at McClain, ignore every one of his words and make a decision to do the worst possible thing — (administer a) big overdose of ketamine he doesn’t need. And after that, they leave him prone on the ground and do nothing.”

Slothouber then reminded jurors that many of the witnesses who testified agreed McClain died of pulmonary arrest, and it was only after his lung stopped working — a consequence of ketamine administration — that his heart stopped working, he said, urging the jury to take witness credibility into account.

“The key to this case is that’s how bad it was — (Cooper and Cichuniec) didn’t even try,” Slothouber said. “When McClain pleaded, ‘Please help me,’ they left him there, overdosed him on ketamine, left him there again and it killed him and that’s why they’re guilty.”

“There is a part of this story that we’ll never know”

Describing McClain as a young man with a spirit “sweeter than any of us can ever try to be” who was called by God to be a healer in this world before his untimely death, MiDian Holmes, a friend and supporter of the McClain family, said there’s a part of McClain’s story that no one will ever know.

“We’ll never know Elijah as the father. We’ll never know Elijah as the husband. We don’t get that story,” Holmes said, as she described the actions of first responders that day. “So we are still seeking justice — we do not know justice until we see sentencing.”

Though McClain is gone, “he has never been forgotten,” she said. “He has left a legacy for me, for you, for everyone.”

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