Paramedic sentencing in Elijah McClain’s death caps trials that led to 3 convictions


DENVER (AP) — Almost five years after Elijah McClain died following a police stop in which he was put in a neck hold and injected with the powerful sedative ketamine, three of the five Denver-area responders prosecuted in the Black man’s death have been convicted.

Experts say the convictions would have been unheard of before 2020, when George Floyd’s murder sparked a nationwide reckoning over racist policing and deaths in police custody.

But McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, said justice has not yet been served. Previously, she has said the two acquitted Aurora police officers, as well as other firefighters and police on the scene, were complicit in her 23-year-old son’s murder and that they escaped justice.

“I’m waiting on heaven to hand down everybody’s judgment. Because I know heaven ain’t gonna miss the mark,” she told The Associated Press.

She plans to speak on Friday at a sentencing hearing in a Denver suburb, at which Jeremy Cooper, a former Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic, faces up to three years in prison. He was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in December.

Cooper’s sentencing hearing caps a series of trials that stretched over seven months and resulted in the convictions of a police officer and two paramedics. The paramedics’ conviction sent shock waves through the ranks of EMTs across the nation because of the rarity of criminal charges brought against medical professionals in their role, according to experts.

McClain’s name became a rallying cry in protests over racial injustice in policing that swept the U.S. in 2020.

“Without the reckoning over criminal justice and how people of color suffer at much higher rates from police use of force and violence, it’s very unlikely that anything would have come of this, that there would have been any charges, let alone convictions,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert on racial profiling.

Harris added that the acquittals of the two officers following weekslong trials were unsurprising, since juries are often reluctant to second guess the actions of police and other first responders.

“It’s still very hard to convict,” he said.

The same judge who will preside over the hearing Friday sentenced ex-paramedic Peter Cichuniec in March to five years in prison for criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault, the most serious of the charges faced by any of the responders. It was the shortest sentence allowed under the law.

Previously, Judge Mark Warner sentenced officer Randy Roedema to 14 months in jail for criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor assault.

Prosecutors initially declined to pursue charges related to McClain’s death when an autopsy did not determine how he died. But Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered the investigation reopened following the 2020 protests against police brutality.

The second autopsy said McClain died because he was injected with ketamine after being forcibly restrained.

To Sheneen McClain, it doesn’t make sense that officer Nathan Woodyard, who stopped her son and put him in a neck hold, was acquitted, while officer Roedema received a lighter sentence than the paramedic Cichuniec. She thinks the paramedics’ role was to cover up what the police had done to her son.

She plans to address the court at Friday’s sentencing hearing.

“I raised him by myself and I will continue to stand there for my son, regardless of whether anybody listens to me or not,” she said.

Since the killings of Floyd, McClain and others put a spotlight on police custody deaths, many departments, paramedic units and those that train them have reexamined how they treat suspects. It could take years though to collect enough evidence to show if those efforts are working, said Candace McCoy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Cooper injected McClain with ketamine after police stopped him as he was walking home. Officers later referenced a suspicious person report. McClain was not armed, nor accused of breaking any laws.

Medical experts said by the time he received the sedative, McClain already was in a weakened state from forcible restraint that rendered him temporarily unconscious.

He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died three days later.

Cooper’s attorneys did not immediately respond to telephone messages and emails seeking comment on the sentencing.

Since McClain’s death, the Colorado health department has told paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having excited delirium, which had been described in a since-withdrawn emergency physicians’ report as manifesting symptoms including increased strength. A doctors group has called it an unscientific definition rooted in racism.

The protests over McClain and Floyd also ushered in a wave of state legislation to curb the use of neck holds known as carotid restraints, which cut off circulation, and chokeholds, which cut off breathing. At least 27 states including Colorado have passed some limit on the practices. Only two had bans in place before Floyd was killed.

To MiDian Holmes, a racial justice advocate who attended the trials against the first responders, change isn’t coming fast enough.

“It’s the message that the life of Elijah mattered but it didn’t matter enough,” Holmes said.

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