What to know about the upcoming trial for the paramedics who face charges in the death of Elijah McClain

· Nov. 21, 2023, 4:45 pm
Elijah McClain ArraignmentElijah McClain ArraignmentAndy Cross/The Denver Post, Pool
Paramedics Jeremy Cooper, left, and Peter Cichuniec, right, at an arraignment in the Adams County district court at the Adams County Justice Center January 20, 2023. Aurora Police officers Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema and former officer Jason Rosenblatt along with paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec were indicted by a Colorado state grand jury in 2021 on 32 combined accounts related to Elijah McClain’s death in August 2019.

When Aurora Fire Rescue medics and firefighters arrived on the scene in Aurora on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, Elijah McClain, who was unarmed and not suspected of any crime, was already restrained and handcuffed. 

According to the indictment handed up in September 2021, Aurora paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec stood near McClain but didn’t speak to him. They didn’t check his vital signs or touch McClain before they injected him with a powerful sedative, ketamine.  

The two appeared in court Tuesday for a status conference. The court set time limits for voir dire and opening arguments. It also announced that there will be three alternate jurors. The jury selection will continue starting at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 27 and opening arguments should begin sometime that week. 

Before the trial gets underway, here’s an overview of what to expect and what we’ve seen so far in the trials for those who were charged in the death of Elijah McClain. 

What does the indictment say about what happened when Cooper and Cichuniec arrived on scene?

The grand jury indictment states that Cooper and Cichuniec “deviated from standard protocols” and lists things the paramedics failed to do:

  • They did not perform a proper assessment of McClain and incorrectly diagnosed excited delirium
  • They did not get a reasonable estimation of McClain’s body weight, so the dose of ketamine was too high for his 140 pounds. 
  • They did not properly monitor McClain after giving him ketamine, leading to predictable complications from the sedative. 

The two paramedics watched an Aurora officer push McClain to the ground and after spending two minutes on the scene, both Cooper and Cichuniec diagnosed McClain with excited delirium, according to the indictment. They didn’t check his vital signs or even touch McClain before making that diagnosis. 

The indictment says they gave McClain 500 mg of ketamine but should have been given 325 mg according to his body weight — his dose was appropriate for someone who weighed nearly 80 pounds more than McClain did.

By the time McClain was placed on a gurney several minutes after the ketamine injection, he was unconscious. He went into cardiac arrest shortly after being placed in the ambulance and never regained consciousness after he regained a pulse.

What are they charged with in this case?

Both Cooper and Cichuniec are charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and second-degree assault for their involvement in the death of McClain. All the charges are felonies. Both men pleaded not guilty earlier this year. 

How will this trial be different from the previous two trials for first responders who encountered McClain? 

The previous two trials were focused on the restraint and force used against McClain, who was unarmed and not suspected of any crime before the paramedics arrived and gave the 23-year-old an extra large dose of ketamine. So this trial will be the first time we hear details of why the state believes that mistake was a crime.

The trials for Aurora officers Randy Roedema, Jason Rosenblatt, and Nathan Woodyard have resulted in lesser charges for one officer, Roedema, and acquittals of the other two. In those trials, Aurora Police training standards and protocols were a big part of both cases — and whether the officers on the scene that night followed their training. Aurora Fire Rescue has different training and different protocols, which will likely be a focus in this upcoming trial. 

Any big similarities?

It’s likely that the born-worn camera footage, in which it doesn’t appear that any medics or firefighters interacted with McClain at all, will come into play in this trial. Neither Cooper nor Cichuniec took his pulse before giving the ketamine, according to the indictment.

The major similarity will be the use of ketamine and the cause of McClain’s death. McClain’s autopsy was changed after the grand jury investigation from an “undetermined” cause of death to a death caused by ketamine after forcible restraint.

Juries at previous trials were not convinced by the state’s argument that the forcible restraint, including two carotid holds that cut off blood flow to McClain’s brain and rendered him unconscious, was responsible for his death several days after the encounter. 

This time, the state will put the first part of the amended autopsy report’s change to test: the ketamine. 

Police body cameras show a mostly catatonic, unresponsive McClain in handcuffs as Cichuniec and Cooper administered a too-large dose of ketamine for his body weight. Several medical experts have called it an “overdose” of the sedative. McClain lost his pulse in the ambulance a few minutes later.

In 2020, Aurora Fire Rescue banned the use of ketamine in the field. A year later, state lawmakers passed a law limiting its use by first responders and prohibiting law enforcement officers from influencing paramedics’ use of it. 

It’s likely that the forensic pathologist who was contracted by Adams County to perform McClain’s autopsy, Dr. Stephen Cina, will testify for the third time. 

How big a role will ketamine play in this trial?

Because of the large role it played in deflecting the blame off officers in the previous trial, this case is expected to pivot on the paramedics' incorrect diagnosis of excited delirium, the choice to use ketamine, and the administration of too large a dose. 

Defense attorneys in the first two trials hammered home repeatedly that ketamine was responsible for McClain’s death. 

“Elijah McClain would not have died but for the ketamine,” said Don Cisson, an attorney for Roedema during the closing arguments of the first trial. 

In the second trial, Woodyard’s attorney Megan Downing told jurors that Woodyard wasn’t anywhere near where paramedics injected him with ketamine.

“The only killer in this case is ketamine,” Downing said.

As the officers’ attorneys have continuously pointed to the ketamine as the reason for McClain’s death, it’s unclear how the defense for Cooper and Cichuniec will argue their not-guilty plea. The state has the burden of proof in criminal trials.

What’s up next?

According to the Adams County court dockets, the court proceedings are set to begin Monday, Nov. 27 with jury selection. 

Judge Mark Warner has previously stated that he intended to ask more pointed questions about potential jurors’ exposure to news coverage of the cases now that the first two trials are over. The selections could last two to three days — the process took longer for the two-defendant trial than the one for Woodyard. 

Opening statements will follow the seating of a jury. 

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