The Death of Elijah McClain: Criminal Trials of Law Enforcement and First Responders Begin
Trigger Warning: Police Brutality, Physical Assault
On August 24, 2019, Elijah McClain was returning home after purchasing tea from a gas station in Aurora, Colorado. McClain was a 23-year-old massage therapist, and his loved ones described him as “a spiritual seeker, pacifist, oddball, vegetarian, athlete, and peacemaker who was exceedingly gentle.” He suffered from anemia, which often left him “...insanely skinny and cold all the time.” Due to this condition, he often wore different types of Dri-Fit clothing to keep himself warm, such as a runner’s mask.
McClain was wearing a runner’s mask the night that he was returning home from the gas station. While McClain was walking home, an individual called 911 and stated that they saw McClain wearing a ski mask and waving his arms around when they made eye contact. The Aurora Police Department responded to the scene and stated that McClain, listening to music on his headphones, ignored commands and continued to walk away from police. It was then that Aurora police tried to arrest McClain, and a struggle ensued. Three police officers – Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard, and Jason Rosenblatt – claimed that McClain had attempted to grab one of their guns. All three officers worked to restrain McClain despite the fact that he was only five feet and six inches tall and weighed approximately 140 pounds.
At one point, Officer Woodyard placed McClain in a carotid hold, a restraint meant to limit the amount of blood flowing to the brain. While Woodyard placed this restraint on McClain, McClain repeatedly told the officers that he could not breathe. Additionally, he explained that he lived nearby, had no weapon, and that he would even “sacrifice his identity” if they stopped attacking him. McClain even praised the police officers who held him, stating they were “phenomenal and beautiful.” Minutes later, McClain vomited due to the officers’ force, apologized for throwing up, and stated he couldn’t fix himself before losing consciousness.
The officers soon called paramedics due to his ‘agitated mental state.’ These paramedics, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, injected McClain with a 500-milligram dose of ketamine, “a powerful tranquilizer used to treat depression and as anesthesia.” McClain was then placed into an ambulance, where he went into cardiac arrest. McClain was revived by paramedics but declared brain dead at the hospital. Elijah McClain was taken off of life support and died on August 30, 2019.
While many in the Aurora community criticized and protested against the city’s handling of the Elijah McClain case, no criminal charges were filed against any of the police officers or paramedics who were with McClain that night.
In 2020, the death of George Floyd caused a national outcry and prompted renewed investigations into deaths of people of color that involved law enforcement, including McClain’s. On December 10, 2020, the Aurora chapter of the NAACP and members of the Aurora City Council hosted a community meeting where residents of the city expressed their concerns about McClain’s death and their desire to have police officers become more involved in the communities they serve. Meetings like these led to positive changes in the community, such as a ban on carotid restraints, a community police task force, and further investigation into McClain’s death.
As a result of this further investigation into Elijah McClain’s death, two of the police officers, Roedema and Rosenblatt, are now on trial for McClain’s death, specifically accused of manslaughter, criminally negligent, reckless homicide, and assault. Colorado State Prosecutor Jonathan Bunge stated that Rosenblatt and Roedema defied the policies of the Aurora Police Department by using excessive force on McClain and neglecting to de-escalate the situation. When considering the charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent, reckless homicide, Bunge utilized the evidence that McClain threw up repeatedly due to the restraint that the officers placed on him and began to inhale and drown in his own vomit to prove that officers were liable even before paramedic interference. To this end, a pulmonologist who testified for the prosecution stated that McClain's state before receiving ketamine “...had deteriorated to the extent that he belonged in a hospital intensive care unit.”
However, lawyers representing Roedema and Rosenblatt state that the officers' actions aligned with department policies and training. They instead believe that McClain’s death was solely due to the excessive dose of ketamine he received when paramedics arrived at the scene. As evidence, they point to an autopsy report, which first listed the cause of death as “undetermined” but was adjusted to “complications from ketamine following forcible restraint” because McClain received a dose of ketamine that was appropriate for someone almost two times his size.
Though Roedema and Rosenblatt’s trials have begun, Officer Woodyard’s trial will start in October since Woodyard had left the scene before paramedics arrived. As for the paramedics, Cooper and Cichuniec requested that their trials be held separately from the officers. Their trial will begin in November.
Candace McCoy, a professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explains that throughout the trial, the state prosecution will have to prove to jurors that the officers “knowingly understood that what they were doing was out of policy and likely to create serious harm or even death.”
Regardless of the case’s outcome, tragic and unreasonable deaths like McClain’s show a strong disconnect between law enforcement and communities of color. While communities like Aurora have worked to create initiatives to grow this connection, there is still a long way to go. A report released this year revealed that Connecticut state troopers have been accused of falsifying over 25,0000 traffic tickets between 2014 and 2021.
These falsified tickets were “...more likely to involve white non-Hispanic drivers” and act as false data that downplays racial disparities in analyzed traffic stop numbers. Instead of falsifying records, state and federal officials must continue to work on acknowledging and correcting biases and connecting with the communities they serve.
Tragic, untimely deaths like McClain’s should serve as reminders to law enforcement and citizens across America that terms like “community trust,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” aren’t just buzzwords. Rather, they are principles that are necessary to reform policing systems, promote equality, and prevent deaths like McClain’s from ever occurring.