Police, Paramedics Accused in Elijah McClain Killing Plead Not Guilty

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DENVER — The five police officers and paramedics accused of killing Elijah McClain, a young Black man who had been walking home when he was stopped by the police in Aurora, Colo., were formally arraigned in a Colorado district court on Friday, more than three years after his death.

The indicted defendants all entered pleas of not guilty but will be tried in separate trials in a case that drew national attention and became part of the larger racial justice movement after the murder of George Floyd.

Mr. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was put in a chokehold by police and injected with a powerful sedative by paramedics during a violent encounter on Aug. 24, 2019. He suffered cardiac arrest and died a few days later.

The stop was based on a 911 call about a suspicious person who was wearing a face mask and waving his arms. Police confronted Mr. McClain, who was unarmed and not suspected of committing any crimes.

Elijah McClain died days after an encounter with police and paramedics.Credit…via Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP

In the initial autopsy by the Adams County coroner, the cause and manner of death were reported as undetermined. The autopsy was amended after a review of information presented to the grand jury. The new cause of death was listed as “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.” The manner remained undetermined.

Months after Mr. McClain’s death, Adams County prosecutors, citing insufficient evidence, declined to file criminal charges against the police and paramedics. Attorney General Phil Weiser, who was named a special prosecutor by Gov. Jared Polis, later opened an investigation that resulted in a 32-count indictment in September 2021.

Mr. Weiser’s office also started a probe into Aurora Police and Aurora Fire Rescue. Among the findings, the investigation’s report said the police department had a pattern and practice of racially biased policing and use of excessive force — which resulted in an agreement with the city of Aurora to accept close oversight from an independent monitor to improve policing and public safety.

In 2021, the city of Aurora settled a civil suit filed by Mr. McClain’s parents for $15 million.

This week, a judge ordered three separate trials for the defendants, who each face multiple felony charges including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

The two paramedics, Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, will be tried together, as will the officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt. A separate proceeding will be held for the officer Nathan Woodyard, who authorities say administered the chokehold.

Mr. Rosenblatt was fired from the police department for his involvement with a photo of police officers re-enacting the chokehold near Mr. McClain’s memorial site. The two other officers charged were suspended without pay.

In his ruling, District Judge Mark Douglas Warner said that while the five were indicted together for their roles in Mr. McClain’s death, “the factual circumstances do not neatly follow a typical codependent criminal matter.”

“While the cause of the death will ultimately be determined by the juries, a theory may be advanced that the physiological effects of the struggle with the law enforcement officers, combined with the ketamine injection resulted in the death of Mr. McClain,” he wrote.

Attorneys for the defendants requested a continuance of the arraignment to review information, but the judge declined, saying “We need to get these cases on track.”

The first trial, involving Mr. Rosenblatt and Mr. Roedema, is scheduled to begin in July. The second, for Mr. Cichuniec and Mr. Cooper, will be in August. And the third, for Mr. Woodyard, will start in September. Each trial is expected to last three weeks.

Mr. McClain’s death in the summer of 2019 did not receive widespread national coverage until after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Mr. McClain’s case was pushed into the spotlight, his name chanted by protesters in the coast-to-coast movement against racism and police brutality.

The separation of the trials angered Mr. McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain. She did not attend the arraignment because she said it was too emotional and she was frustrated with the pace of the criminal proceedings.

“Elijah is no longer here. I am the one going through this trying to get justice for my son,” Ms. McClain said hours before the arraignment. “All five of them were there the night my son was murdered. All five of them should be tried together.”

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