Final trial over Elijah McClain’s death in suburban Denver spotlights paramedics’ role

DENVER — The third and final trial in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain after he was stopped by police in a Denver suburb includes murder and manslaughter charges against two paramedics. It’s a prosecution expert who says it’s entering largely uncharted legal territory by pursuing criminal charges against medical first responders.

McClain had been restrained by police and placed in a neck hold, leaving him weak when paramedics arrived and injected him with the powerful sedative ketamine. The 23-year-old black man suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was pronounced dead three days later.

Initially, no one was charged because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died. But in 2021, social justice protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd drew renewed attention to McClain’s case, leading to charges against the paramedics and three officers.

Jury selection in the paramedics trial begins Monday.

“What we saw three years ago has put a huge spotlight on the policing profession,” said University of Miami criminologist Alex Piquero, adding that the McClain case “has the potential to do that for paramedics and first responders.”

Aurora Fire Department paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec have pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorneys indicated at a hearing in November that they plan to blame police for McClain’s death during a trial expected to last most of December. Defense attorneys did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment on the charges the men face.

The case will be the first of several recent criminal charges against medical first responders to go to trial and could “set the bar” for prosecutors in future cases, said Douglas Wolfberg, a former emergency medicine instructor and founder of a law firm in Pennsylvania that represents emergency aid. medical services employees.

“Society’s thinking about these things has changed and evolved, especially since George Floyd,” Wolfberg said. “There are of course political considerations. That is not to deny Mr. McClain’s family the justice they seek.”

Cases pending elsewhere include paramedics in Illinois facing first-degree murder charges after a patient they had strapped face down to a gurney was suffocated, and an involuntary manslaughter charge against a nurse in California who continued to draw blood from an unresponsive patient while officers restrained him.

“It is rare for EMTs to be criminally charged in connection with providing inpatient care,” Wolfberg said. “Normally that is a medical malpractice issue, a negligence case that is civil and rarely criminal. This is groundbreaking.”

One of the police officers charged in McClain’s death was convicted last month of the lesser charges he faced — murder and third-degree assault — after attorneys tried to blame the paramedics. Two other officers were acquitted by jurors after weeks of trials.

Cooper and Cichuniec are charged with manslaughter, negligent homicide and several counts of assault, all felonies. Their role in McClain’s death loomed large during the first officers’ trials.

Attorneys for one of the acquitted officers brought in a paid expert witness hired by prosecutors to work on the paramedics’ case.

Dr. Nadia Iovettz-Tereshchenko, an emergency room doctor who has worked as a paramedic, said Cooper and Cichuniec’s actions fell significantly below the expected level of care. She testified that the paramedics stood back and watched McClain from a distance while he was restrained by police, did not examine him before the ketamine injection and did not monitor him afterward.

Prosecutors also testified at the previous trials that the ketamine ultimately caused McClain’s death, with some saying the officer’s violent stop set in motion contributing events.

The amended coroner’s report, issued in 2021, found that McClain died because he was given too much ketamine. However, forensic pathologist Stephen Cina noted that the amount found in McClain’s blood was within the range normally considered safe.

McClain was arrested the night of August 24, 2019, as he walked home from a convenience store, listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face. The police stop quickly turned physical after McClain, seemingly taken aback, tried to walk through. He was unarmed and had not been charged with committing any crime.

He was briefly rendered unconscious by an officer using a neck hold, prompting police to call paramedics as officers restrained him on the ground.

According to their complaint, Cooper and Cichuniec denied being told the neck hold had been applied. Prior to the ketamine injection, they stood near McClain and did not speak to him or ask him anything before diagnosing him with excited delirium within about two minutes. They were trained to treat the condition, which reportedly makes people hyper-aggressive, the document said.

Critics say the condition has been used to justify excessive violence, and some doctor groups reject excited delirium as a diagnosis.

In McClain’s case, prosecutors said the diagnosis was inaccurate because paramedics failed to adequately assess his symptoms. A 2021 report from experts hired by Aurora to review McClain’s death found that he had not moved or made a sound for more than a minute before being injected.

Cichuniec, supervisor of paramedics for the Aurora Fire Department, asked medics working for a private ambulance at the scene to prepare the ketamine injection for McClain, the complaint said. Cooper injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine, a dose appropriate for someone who weighed more than 200 pounds, the complaint said. McClain weighed only 143 pounds (65 kilograms).

Before the ketamine injection, body camera footage shows Cooper asking police if McClain spoke English, and Officer Randy Roedema, the officer convicted in the case, responding, “He speaks English, but he’s definitely on to something busy.”

Prosecutors in Roedema’s trial said the use of such language, which suggested McClain had induced delerium, made the police officers complicit in the paramedics’ decision to give McClain ketamine.

Two days after McClain’s death, Aurora officials released a statement saying that “a standard medication routinely used to reduce agitation was administered (to McClain) and reduced the anxiety exhibited.”

The killings of McClain, Floyd and others sparked a wave of legislation imposing restrictions on the use of neck holds in more than two dozen states, including Colorado, which now also orders paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having delirium have raised. A now-retracted emergency physician report described the condition as manifesting with symptoms such as increased strength. Critics call the diagnosis unscientific and rooted in racism.

The city of Aurora agreed in 2021 to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents.


Brown reported from Billings, Montana.