DENVER – A group of police officers and paramedics pleaded not guilty Friday to charges stemming from the role they are accused of playing in the death of a 23-year-old Black man who was forcibly restrained and injected with a powerful sedative called ketamine.
They were indicted by a state grand jury on manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges in 2021. Two years earlier, Elijah McClain died after being stopped while walking down the street in the Denver suburb of Aurora. A 911 caller had reported a man who seemed “sketchy.”
An amended autopsy report released last year concluded that McClain would have most likely survived but for the administration of a dose of ketamine that was higher than recommended for someone his size. However, the manner of McClain's death was still listed as undetermined, not a homicide.
McClain's death fueled renewed scrutiny about the use of the ketamine and led Colorado’s health department to issue a rule limiting when emergency workers can use it.
Experts in emergency medicine say prosecutions of paramedics are rare. However, in Illinois, two paramedics who strapped a Black man facedown on a stretcher after police requested an ambulance last month have been charged with murder.
Police officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt, and fire department paramedic Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec all pleaded not guilty during a hearing in the Denver suburb of Brighton. They did not speak during the hearing except to acknowledge that they understood their rights.
Family members and other supporters packed the small courtroom during a hearing that mainly consisted of setting dates for trials and discussing motions hearings. A judge decided to schedule three separate trials, the first of which is set to begin in July for officers Roedema and Rosenblatt. Another trial for Cooper and Cichuniec is scheduled for August. Woodyard's trial is set for September.
A lawyer representing Woodyard, Megan Downing, declined to comment on the allegations, saying any defense she would offer would get into grand jury material, which remains sealed. Attorneys for the other defendants left court without making any comment.
A grand jury indicted them after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered Attorney General Phil Weiser to open a criminal investigation into the case. There had been renewed national interest in McClain's death as protesters rallied over the killing of George Floyd in 2020. In 2021, the city of Aurora agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents for $15 million.
McClain, a massage therapist, was unarmed and had not been accused of committing any crime. According to the indictment, he was walking home from a grocery store in 2019 after buying iced tea wearing a ski mask, months before the pandemic made face coverings common. The encounter quickly escalated, with McClain initially losing consciousness after a chokehold was applied by police. McClain, whom relatives say wore the mask because anemia made him cold, complained he couldn’t breathe as three officers held him handcuffed on the ground, and he vomited several times.
Polis ordered the state investigation after a former district attorney said he could not file charges because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died. His death helped inspire a sweeping police accountability law in Colorado, a ban on chokeholds and restrictions on the use of the sedative ketamine.
The amended autopsy report released in September said McClain died as the result of complications of ketamine administration after being forcibly restrained. In it, Dr. Stephen Cina, a pathologist, said he could not rule out that changes in McClain’s blood chemistry, like an increase in lactic acid, due to his exertion while being restrained by police contributed to his death but concluded there was no evidence that injuries inflicted by police caused his death. The indictment said McClain had low oxygen and too much acid in his blood.
Family and friends described McClain as a gentle and kind introvert who volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter. His pleading words captured on police body camera video — “I’m just different” — painfully underscored his apparent confusion at what was happening.