Elijah McClain trial: Pulmonologist testifies that McClain inhaled enough fluid to be potentially fatal before he received ketamine

Listen Now
10min 17sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, Colorado, on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, where jury selection is underway for the trial of Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, who were charged in the death of Elijah McClain.

An international lung and asthma pulmonologist who examined Elijah McClain’s lungs, medical records and the body-worn camera footage said on Friday that McClain had inhaled a potentially fatal amount of fluid from vomit during his arrest.

Dr. David Beuther, a pulmonary critical care physician at National Jewish Health, told an Adams County jury that he filed both an initial and supplemental report on McClain’s death in a grand jury investigation in 2021. Beuther reviewed McClain’s extensive medical records, images, x-rays and police camera footage. 

He also examined the mask McClain wore the night he was forcibly arrested in 2019 by three Aurora Police officers and then given ketamine by two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics. He was declared brain dead and died in the hospital. Beuther said it was a fleece mask that covered McClain’s face except for small openings for his eyes, mouth and nose.

Those five first responders face charges in McClain’s death. This week marked the start of the first trial for the two backup officers on the scene, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt. 

Beuther testified that McClain’s asthma was not an “active problem” for him and was not related to his death that night. He said he determined that by watching footage of McClain just a few minutes ahead of the arrest, including surveillance photos inside a Shell gas station when he was buying iced tea. McClain did not appear to be in any respiratory distress that evening. 

Plus, his autopsy didn’t show any signs of obvious inflammation caused by asthma and when people die of an asthma attack there are signs of inflammation, Beuther said. 

Beuther also said that he’s done a study on the effects of masks on asthmatics. McClain often wore an outdoor face mask, like commonly worn for skiing or exercising in the winter, even in the summer because he was cold, his family said. 

Beuther said that masks can sometimes help asthmatics in dry climates like Colorado because they are breathing in warm, humid air.

The doctor said that when McClain was exerting energy in his struggle with police, he could hear his breathing grow more rapid.

“We can hear the rate and the depth and the intensity of his breathing go very, very high. So fairly quickly you hear this kind of almost panting,” Beuther said. “That would be the first observation - this is somebody that, if they said nothing, was having trouble breathing."

Officers put him in two carotid holds, which commonly cause people to eventually vomit if they lose consciousness and then regain it. McClain started vomiting and he threw up into his mask. Officers didn’t remove it until a few minutes later. 

“It was a large amount,” he said, noting he inspected that mask. “In my medical opinion, certainty … this is a very high-risk situation. The more you vomit, the more risk of aspiration.”

Beuther said McClain was aspirating, or breathing vomit into his lungs, during that time. Prosecutors played the body camera footage at a loud volume to hear McClain’s respiratory struggle and breathing and sickness throughout.

Prosecutors also asked him whether McClain would have died had they not given him the ketamine. 

“If they would have frozen time, he may have died or he may not have,” he said. “In the hospital … we have had both outcomes … in cases like this.”

Beuther said that McClain, before receiving any ketamine, was suffering from acidosis, which is too much carbon dioxide in the body when someone can’t breathe properly, and hypoxia, which is when someone doesn’t get enough oxygen. 

The prosecution pressed Beuther about the timeline of the body-worn camera footage and what McClain might be experiencing in terms of his medical condition second by second. 

“His lungs are not improving,” he said, listening to McClain’s sounds as he laid on the ground, handcuffed, groaning, vomiting and struggling to breathe.

At some point within a few minutes, Beuther said McClain’s nature and personality changed: He went from making “complex sentences,” he said, to almost catatonic. A sergeant on the scene tried to talk to him and pressed him on what “he was taking” that night, and McClain didn’t respond.

“From a medical perspective, he’s getting worse,” Beuther said.

Beuther’s testimony went to the end of the day, Friday. 

The defense started to cross-examine the witness about an hour before the end of the day. Harvey Steinberg, defense attorney for Rosenblatt, pressed Beuther on his opinion on what caused McClain’s death. 

Defense for Roedema and Rosenblatt has, so far, been trying to establish that McClain died of ketamine overdose. 

The Adams County coroner, in an autopsy, found McClain’s cause of death was ketamine. 

The court is not in session on Monday in observance of Yom Kippur.