Colorado Paramedics Found Guilty in Death of Elijah McClain

Colorado Paramedics Found Guilty in Death of Elijah McClain – On Friday, a jury convicted two Colorado paramedics, Jeremy Cooper, 49, and Peter Cichuniec, 51, of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the 2019 death of Elijah McClain. McClain, a young Black man, died after a police encounter where he was roughly detained, placed in a chokehold, and subsequently injected with a powerful sedative. 

This marked the conclusion of the third trial related to McClain’s death, as he was initially stopped by police on suspicion without any alleged criminal activity. In addition to convicting both men of criminally negligent homicide, punishable by a maximum of three years in prison, the jury also found Cichuniec guilty of second-degree assault for administering the sedative. 

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Following the verdict, Judge Mark Warner ordered Cichuniec’s immediate custody, while Cooper, awaiting sentencing, remained free on bond until March 1. Outside the courthouse, Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, wept, and a supporter, MiDian Holmes, spoke with reporters on her behalf. “We do not know justice until we see sentencing,” Holmes said. “So Judge Warner you now have a responsibility. We are still seeking justice.”

Outside the courtroom, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser emphasized that accountability doesn’t conclude with the convictions. He expressed that there is a considerable amount of work ahead to prevent the loss of innocent lives in encounters with police and other first responders. “Elijah did nothing wrong. His life mattered. He should be with us here today,” Weiser said.

In the initial trial, one police officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, while another was acquitted. In the second trial, a third officer was also acquitted. During their trial in Adams County District Court near Denver, both Cooper and Cichuniec testified, asserting that they deemed the sedative ketamine necessary to calm McClain. They further claimed that the police officers involved in McClain’s rough detainment hindered their ability to promptly administer treatment.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors contended that the paramedics deviated from their training protocols by neglecting to assess McClain before administering the maximum allowable dose of ketamine. They argued that the paramedics incorrectly diagnosed McClain with “excited delirium,” a condition described as involving agitation, aggression, acute distress, and sudden death. 

Many medical experts, including the American Medical Association, dispute the existence of this condition and oppose its use as a diagnosis for law enforcement purposes. Prosecutors highlighted that the paramedics inaccurately estimated McClain’s weight as 200 pounds (91 kg) when injecting him with 500 mg of the sedative, whereas his actual weight was 143 pounds (65 kg).

“These defendants didn’t even try. When Elijah McClain pleaded ‘please help me,’ they left him there, they overdosed him on ketamine, they killed him,” prosecutor Jason Slothouber said during closing arguments on Wednesday. The defense countered this, asserting that, according to the training available in 2019, the paramedics acted in a justified manner.

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“The relevant question is whether it was reasonable for these two gentlemen to believe that he was suffering from excited delirium, that he was acting consistent with what their training and their protocol told them was excited delirium,” defense attorney David Goddard said in his closing. On December 1, Colorado’s Peace Officers Standards and Training board decided to cease teaching “excited delirium” as a diagnosis to new officers in training. 

There is a pending bill before Colorado lawmakers aiming to prohibit excited delirium from all police and emergency medical services (EMS) training, and it would disallow coroners from listing it as a cause of death. The encounter with McClain occurred on the night of August 24, 2019, following a 911 call reporting a man dressed in winter attire and a ski mask on a warm night, behaving suspiciously as he walked home from a convenience store. 

Police swiftly engaged with McClain, putting him in a carotid chokehold at least twice within seconds of stopping him. He vomited into his ski mask and repeatedly expressed difficulty breathing to the officers. The original autopsy conducted on McClain in 2019 found the cause of death to be “undetermined.” But a revised autopsy report in 2021 concluded McClain died from “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.”

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Initially, local prosecutors opted not to pursue charges. However, this stance shifted in the wake of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who lost his life in an incident involving Minneapolis police. Prompted by the global protests sparked by Floyd’s death, Colorado Governor Jared Polis requested the state attorney general’s office in June 2020 to investigate the case of Elijah McClain. Subsequently, a state grand jury issued indictments against the officers and paramedics in 2021.

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