Criminal Trial of Paramedics Opens in the Death of Elijah McClain


The third and final trial over the death of Elijah McClain opened Wednesday in a Colorado courtroom, where jurors will be asked to decide whether two paramedics who responded to the deadly police encounter can be held criminally responsible for what happened to him.

Mr. McClain, a young, unarmed Black man, died in 2019, six days after a violent struggle with police officers in Aurora, Colo. Three officers have already been prosecuted over his death; one was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault and the other two were acquitted.

The final trial is a rare instance of medical personnel being prosecuted for their roles in a police-custody death. The two paramedics being tried together are charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and several counts of assault.

Prosecutors have argued that Mr. McClain died because of the way the police restrained him and because he was injected with a powerful sedative.

Mr. McClain’s death in police custody occurred before that of George Floyd, and initially, local prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers and paramedics involved, saying there was insufficient evidence of criminality. That changed after Mr. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis sparked widespread protests, and state officials charged police and paramedics in Mr. McClain’s death. Both cases were among those that helped ignite a national movement against police brutality.

Though prosecutions of police officers over deaths in custody have become more frequent, it is unusual for paramedics to be charged in such cases.

“This trial is important because the theory of prosecution is novel, and it essentially seeks to criminalize deviations from medical standards of care, which we typically call malpractice,” said Douglas M. Wolfberg, founding partner of a Pennsylvania law firm that represents emergency medical services organizations. Mr. Wolfberg, a former emergency medical technician, called the prosecution a “very steep hill to climb.”

Mr. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, when he was stopped by the police, after a 911 caller had described him as “sketchy.” Mr. McClain was listening to music, waving his arms and wearing a dark mask, which his mother said he wore because he was anemic.

Within minutes, the police placed Mr. McClain in a neck restraint, also known as a carotid hold — a tactic that has since been banned in Colorado — which briefly rendered him unconscious.

Nathan Woodyard, the officer who placed Mr. McClain in that hold, is returning to the Aurora Police Department following his acquittal on all charges. He will receive more than $200,000 in back pay, The Denver Post reported. The city of Aurora was required by city charter to reinstate Mr. Woodyard, according to Art Acevedo, the interim police chief. Mr. Woodyard, who been suspended without pay since September 2021, must undergo “reintegration” to learn any new department policies and practices, according to a statement from city officials.

Elijah McClain died days after he was subdued by three policemen and injected with a powerful sedative in August 2019.Credit…via Reuters

The two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics, Lt. Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, arrived on the scene not long after Mr. McClain was in police custody. According to the indictment, Mr. McClain was in distress, but the paramedics did not speak to him, touch him or check his vital signs before injecting him with the sedative ketamine. He died several days later.

The paramedics’ diagnosis was that Mr. McClain had a condition called excited delirium, which critics have argued is unproven, and has often been used to justify the use of excessive force by police officers.

Prosecutors say that the paramedics overestimated how much Mr. McClain weighed, and as a result injected him with too much ketamine.

In 2021, Colorado passed a law banning law enforcement officers from directing medics to use ketamine on individuals, and restricts use of the sedative to subdue someone suspected of a crime, unless there is a true medical emergency.

The trial is expected to last through December.

Relying on autopsy findings, police-worn body camera footage and expert witnesses, prosecutors are expected to argue that the two paramedics bore the most responsibility for Mr. McClain’s death. When the police officers in the case were tried, witnesses for both the prosecution and defense testified that the paramedics’ actions were largely to blame.

Stan Garnett, a former Boulder County district attorney, said prosecutors would have to prove that what the paramedics did “was so outside the standard of care for a paramedic in a scene like this that they failed to perceive a risk that led to Elijah McClain’s death and, to get the more serious charge of reckless manslaughter, that they consciously disregarded a known risk.”

Defense lawyers are expected to direct blame toward the officers.

“They might argue that in the context of police and paramedics working together, there is a culture of the police expecting the paramedics to do whatever they tell them to do,” said Ian Farrell, associate professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

“The defense’s challenge will be to explain why the paramedics did no assessment at all,” and why they administered such a high dose of ketamine, Mr. Farrell said.



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