Two Aurora paramedics charged in Elijah McClain’s death defend actions, say police officers hurt their efforts to treat him

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Paramedic Jeremy Cooper leaves court in the Adams County Justice Center fort a lunch break on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. Cooper and fellow paramedic Peter Cichunienc are on trial for their roles in the death of Elijah McClain.

Both paramedics on trial for giving Elijah McClain an overdose of ketamine took the stand in their own defense on Monday saying police officers on the scene didn’t allow them to treat McClain effectively and they didn’t fully tell them about McClain’s condition -- including that he had received a carotid hold.

Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, each facing reckless manslaughter and assault charges in McClain’s death, told an Adams County jury they followed their protocol for treating a person suffering from excited delirium — even though neither of them appeared to have observed anything except McClain handcuffed laying on the grass, struggling with officers on top of him.

Both Aurora Fire Rescue Capt. Cichuniec, a paramedic, and Cooper, a fire medic, gave McClain an overdose of ketamine -- almost 50 percent more than he should have received for his body weight. 

Within a few minutes of receiving that sedative in his shoulder, McClain lost his pulse in the ambulance and never regained consciousness.

Cichuniec, who was the supervisor on the scene and had never administered ketamine before, said that “excited delirium” is a real and dangerous condition and that, if anything, he was fearful that August 2019 evening there was more of a danger not to give McClain enough ketamine.

“In this case with excited delirium, it could kill you. And if we don't work fast, he could die,” he said. “And I don't want to under-medicate someone … After I waited the one to five minutes to see if it took effect and if it didn't, I mean, time is of the essence.”

Cooper said he estimated McClain’s body weight at 200 pounds, based on his own body frame. McClain was really about 143 pounds.

“Ketamine is a weight-based drug. There's no real good training of how to estimate weight,” Cooper said.

Both Cooper and Cichuniec told the jury they were trained that ketamine was highly effective, safe, and helpful for treating excited delirium.

But in cross-examination of both defendants, prosecutor Jason Slothouber used evidence produced during the trials -- police officer body-worn camera footage, interviews from an Aurora police internal affairs investigation conducted a couple of weeks after McClain’s death, and their own statements in their own reports —  to try and catch the defendants’ inconsistencies.

In an internal affairs tape recorded in September 2019, Cooper said that McClain’s symptoms included attempting to scramble “up an embankment” even though camera footage shows McClain on the ground, handcuffed with multiple officers on him at all times. 

Slothouber questioned him about that and Cooper acknowledged McClain never left the grass.

A couple of weeks after McClain’s death, Cooper also told Aurora police investigators, in their internal affairs investigation, that McClain was “combative” on the gurney.

“In seeing the body cam video now, and remembering that question, yes I did misspeak there,” Cooper said after Slothouber pressed him on what he meant by combative because McClain was barely moving or even conscious at that time.

Cooper also said in 2019 that McClain was “talking gibberish” when Cooper was on the scene, before giving him the ketamine.

Slothouber played body-worn camera footage showing McClain saying “please stop” and other sentences.

“Is that gibberish?” he asked Cooper.

Cooper said he didn’t remember hearing McClain speak in full sentences.

Cichuniec acknowledged that he knew at the time he was giving McClain too much ketamine.

“You were aware it was more ketamine than McClain’s size was?” Slothouber said.

“Yes,” Cichuniec replied.

Both Cooper and Cichuniec said they were upset with Aurora police officers that night for not treating McClain more humanely -- including a notable moment where former APD officer Randy Roedema picked a handcuffed McClain up and appeared to throw him to the ground. 

Roedema was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in McClain’s death earlier this fall and will be sentenced in a few weeks.

“It pissed me off,” Cooper said to his attorney Shana Beggan during his testimony about how he felt when he watched an officer slap McClain after he had been given the ketamine to check whether it had taken effect.

“It’s not very professional,” he said.

Body-worn camera footage shows neither Cooper nor Cichuniec confronting the officers or telling them to stand down so they could physically check McClain. In fact, neither spoke to him nor took vital signs during the entire interaction.

“In 2019, we had no policy in place,” Cichuniec said.  “It was always said, once they come out of handcuffs, then they're our patient. Until then, APD, it is their scene. It is, they're in control.”

Earlier in the trial, a supervisor from the Aurora Police Department, Sgt. Dale Leonard testified they did not —  and would not ever —  stop medics from helping a defendant on a scene.

Cooper and Cichuniec both told the jury on Monday that they didn’t know that McClain had been given two carotid holds by officers, which cut blood flow off to his brain. 

Prosecutors played body camera footage of Leonard on the scene relaying to Cooper and Cichuniec that McClain had gotten the carotid holds, but on Monday neither said they remembered that moment amid the chaos that night.

Cooper said he twice tried to help McClain and touch him physically, and he was rebuffed by officers. 

Once, he said he tried to get in near McClain’s head and right then, McClain was “body-slammed” by officers. Cooper then can be heard saying to officers that they should just “leave McClain there” on the ground until the ambulance arrived.

“That was my attempt to de-escalate things,” Cooper said. “Obviously now they're using violent control methods. I didn't want that to happen anymore.”

The second time Cooper said he tried to help McClain, an officer was near McClain’s legs and complained he was cramping up. Cooper said he moved to go take the officer's place in order to get closer to McClain but was physically rebuffed by officers, though none of that could be seen or heard on the body-worn camera footage.

“Are you telling this jury that you did not have the ability to make any medical decisions for Mr. McClain?” Slothouber asked him.

Cooper replied, “I'm not sure if I had legal authority to stop their actions, so I was trying my best to de-escalate.” 

The defense plans on calling an additional witness on Tuesday starting at 8:30 a.m.