Jurors will be asked to decide whether two Aurora paramedics violated the law when they injected Elijah McClain with a maximum dose of the sedative ketamine in a trial that’s being watched by first responders across the country — a rare case in which medical personnel face criminal prosecution over a fatal police encounter.
Opening statements on Wednesday in the trial of Lt. Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper focused on what role paramedics have at the scene when police call them for help, whether the two paramedics had a legitimate reason to inject McClain with ketamine in the first place, and whether they followed protocol once they decided to administer the sedative.
Defense attorneys for Cichuniec and Cooper attempted to direct blame toward the Aurora police officers who stopped McClain — a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who was walking home — that night in August 2019.
Shana Beggan, who represents Cooper, said the paramedics were not in control of McClain’s care until he was placed on a gurney and handcuffs were removed.
The police officers slammed McClain to the ground, used pressure points, including a carotid hold, and pushed their body weight onto McClain to hold him to the ground, Beggan told the jury. The paramedics did not participate in doing those things and were left waiting for police to release McClain to them for medical care.
They also relied on police to tell them what had happened prior to their arrival and to describe McClain’s behavior during the struggle as they made their decisions on how to treat him.
“You don’t get to tap in,” Beggan said of the paramedics. “Evidence will show they don’t get to take the cuffs off.”
Cooper and Cichuniec are charged with reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and two counts of assault, including one count for excessive drugging. Opening statements began Wednesday morning in Adams County District Court before Judge Mark D. Warner, and the trial — the third of three in the McClain case — is expected to last for several weeks.
The prosecution of the two parademics is receiving national attention and is being closely watched by first responders and those who train them. On Wednesday, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics filled four benches in the courtroom to listen as prosecutors presented their case for proving the two paramedics killed McClain with a dose ketamine that would have been appropriate for a 200-pound man, not for the 140-pound McClain.
Dr. Stephen Cina, a forensic pathologist contracted by Adams County, will testify that ketamine caused McClain to die after he had choked on his own vomit.
The Adams County coroner’s original autopsy report said both the cause and manner of McClain’s death were undetermined. The office last year released an amended autopsy report that found the manner of death remained undetermined, meaning no ruling was made as to whether McClain’s death was a homicide, accident or occurred naturally. But his cause of death had been changed to “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.”
Shannon Stevenson, the state solicitor general in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, walked the jury through Aurora Fire Rescue’s protocol for deciding when to give a person ketamine and said the state will prove that Cichuniec and Cooper failed to follow their training.
“The defendants were called to the scene to help Elijah McClain, to treat him as their patient,” Stevenson said. “Instead he’s dead. He would have been better off if they never came.”
“Not about whether mistakes were made”
McClain was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, when an unidentified person called 911 to report him for acting strange. McClain was wearing a hat, face mask, a jacket and long pants and waving his hands in the air.
The first police officer on the scene, Nathan Woodyard, went hands-on within eight seconds of exiting his patrol car as McClain told the officer he was walking home. Two other officers, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, soon joined Woodyard as they wrestled McClain to the ground.
Woodyard put McClain into a carotid hold after Roedema said that McClain had reached for the officer’s gun. Paramedics injected McClain with ketamine and he went into cardiac arrest during the ambulance ride to a hospital. He died on Aug. 30 after he was removed from life support.
Roedema was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault in October. Rosenblatt, who was fired from the Aurora Police Department before he was indicted, was acquitted of criminal charges during the same trial.
A jury found Woodyard not guilty of criminal charges on Nov. 6, and this week he returned to work at the police department, where he is going through a mandatory reintegration process.
During those trials, the officers’ defense attorneys directed blame toward the paramedics for using ketamine. Now, those paramedics will use the officers’ actions to boost their defense.
Michael Lowe, the lawyer for Cichuniec, told jurors they will repeatedly see the body camera footage from that night, and he asked them to pay attention to the details and to ask themselves about what is not seen on video.
When the paramedics arrived on scene in an Aurora Fire Rescue engine they could not park close to where McClain was being held because police cars were clogging the street. They had to walk more than a block and then waited nearly 11 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, Lowe said.
At the scene, Cichuniec had safety and administrative control while Cooper was in charge of the medical response, Lowe said. They had distinct roles from each other and from the police.
Cooper was the paramedic who asked for ketamine from the ambulance and video showed him injecting McClain in the neck while police officers held McClain down. Cooper then told others to wait a minute to make sure McClain calmed down before police lifted him onto a stretcher.
Lowe showed videos and played audio clips that he said were evidence that Cichuniec and Cooper were discussing treatment and following their roles at the scene. Jurors must consider what the two men knew within minutes of arriving and what their training and protocol said they should do.
“This case is not about whether mistakes were made,” Lowe said. “This case is not about whether protocols were missed. This is a case is about whether, when trying to help Mr. McClain, these two gentlemen committed a crime. They did not.”
“They overdosed Elijah”
But Stevenson, during her presentation, said the two paramedics failed McClain.
They did not conduct a proper assessment of his condition, including checking his vital signs. They did not try to speak to him. They did not touch him until Cooper injected the ketamine, Stevenson said.
“At every single step they acted with total disregard for Elijah McClain as their patient,” she said.
McClain never needed ketamine, Stevenson said, as she showed jurors the guidance Aurora paramedics are given to determine whether someone is experiencing excited delirium, a condition that describes someone exhibiting extreme agitation to the point where they are a danger to themselves and others.
Video shows McClain lying mostly still and occasionally moaning when he is injected, not combative like someone with excited delirium, Stevenson said.
“They overdosed Elijah with a sedative he did not need,” she said. “They left him completely vulnerable and stood there and watched him die. It was cruel.”
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