Prosecutors say paramedics were negligent and ignored McClain; defense attorneys say they didn’t have any control of the scene

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, Colorado, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, site of the trial of Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, who were among the Aurora police officers charged in the death of Elijah McClain.

Updated Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023 at 3:04 p.m.

The night Elijah McClain was forcibly detained by three Aurora police officers, they called for medical help because they had given him two carotid holds, which cut blood flow off to his brain. McClain has repeatedly thrown up and complained that he couldn’t breathe.

Addressing an Adams County jury on Wednesday, prosecutors say the Aurora paramedics who showed up, Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, actually made McClain worse, not better.

“Elijah McClain would've been better off if they had never come,” said state Solicitor General Shannon Stevenson. “He would've been alive if they had never come.”

In opening statements to a jury seated earlier this week, prosecutors made the case that Cooper and Cichuniec did so little to find out about what was happening with McClain, including not taking all of his vital signs or even speaking to him, that they were recklessly negligent in doing their jobs.

“He (Cooper) doesn't try to touch him. He barely, barely bends over to even lean down to look at him,” Stevenson said. 

And that was before they gave him a 500 miligram dose of ketamine, a powerful sedative, which was nearly 200 miligrams more than what McClain’s body weight called for.

“Your common sense will tell you that injecting someone who is barely moving, struggling to breathe, not speaking with a powerful sedative is surely reckless,” she said, addressing the jury. “The defendant's conduct violated the standard of care in numerous ways.”

McClain was declared brain dead a few days after this violent struggle with police and the involuntary dose of ketamine in August 2019. Before he was stopped by three police officers, the 23-year-old massage therapist was walking home from a convenience store after buying iced tea. A passerby called 911 on a report of a suspicious person, and officers attempted to detain McClain, who never committed any crimes.

Three officers were also charged in his death, two were acquitted and one, Randy Roedema, was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in October.

Aurora Fire Rescue Cooper and Cichuniec face several felony charges in the death, including assault and reckless manslaughter.

On Wednesday, the courtroom was packed with paramedics and firefighters from Aurora Fire Rescue who showed up in support of the two defendants. Several of their family members were there too, in two rows, and their wives sat close together, sometimes with their arms locked, behind their husbands at the defense table.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, was not in the courtroom. A handful of advocates, including former Denver Public School board member Tay Anderson and Aurora political consultant and activist Hashim Coats, sat behind prosecutors.

In Cooper and Cichuniec’s defense, their attorneys painted a different picture for jurors, saying what happened that night was nuanced and much of it couldn’t be seen by the body worn cameras on the officers, which were shown by prosecutors.

Cooper’s defense attorney Shana Beggan showed the jury footage of the two paramedics wheeling McClain, who had lost consciousness and was on the gurney, into the emergency department at the University of Colorado hospital. They showed them performing CPR.

“The efforts in that ambulance were astounding,” Beggan said. “The resuscitative efforts were impeccable.”

She also told the jury they’ll hear about the lapses in policies in 2019 that crystallized who was actually in charge at a scene with multiple agencies, like this one. Beggan said that Cooper and Cichuniec didn’t have control over their patient, or the scene, as the law enforcement officers, Randy Roedema, Jason Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard, “slammed” McClain to the ground.

“What are the firemen supposed to do?” she said. “They don't even have handcuff keys.”

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys talked about McClain’s murky autopsy report, the latest version, which lays blame on both law enforcement and paramedics for McClain’s cause of death.

Prosecutors locked in on one line written by Dr. Stephen Cina, the pathologist who performed McClain’s autopsy, that said, ultimately, McClain likely wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t received any ketamine. 

Cina issued his original autopsy on McClain in November 2019, about two and a half months after McClain was declared brain dead at University of Colorado Hospital days after his encounter with Aurora police on Aug. 24, 2019. That report detailed a number of things that went wrong in McClain’s 18-minute struggle with police that could have contributed to his death, including aspiration of vomit that caused hypoxia, a severe reaction to ketamine that caused cardiac arrest or lactic acidosis caused by exertion with his struggle with police. 

But he told jurors in an earlier trial that he wrote that initial report without seeing all the video evidence he initially asked for —  including body worn camera footage that clearly shows McClain deeply sedated within a minute of receiving ketamine. 

He said that evidence sparked a very unusual move on his part: He changed the autopsy from an “undetermined” cause of death to “death by ketamine after forcible restraint.” The manner of death is still undetermined.

“Dr. Cina examined Elijah inside and out to determine what caused his death,” Stevenson said. “Dr. Cina concluded that but for the administration of ketamine, Mr. McClain would most likely be alive.”

But defense attorneys, who ran out of time in their allotted 40 minutes each to speak to the jury, seemed to raise the specter of Cina changing his autopsy report because of the racial justice movement of 2020 following the death of George Floyd. 

A multitude of protests and petitions led Gov. Jared Polis to appoint a special prosecutor to look into McClain’s death, after his case had been closed.

“So why are we here?” Beggan said. “Well, we have 2020 and in 2021 at the end of 2021, let's look at what Dr. Cina says.”

Stevenson stood up to object to this sentence. 

But Judge Mark Warner interrupted her.

“Your time is up,” he said, addressing Beggan.

She looked at the jury.

“We’ll have to wait and find out at trial,” she said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify how much more ketamine was injected into Elijah McClain than his body weight called for.