In closing arguments, prosecutors say paramedics’ inaction amounts to reckless negligence in McClain’s death; defense attorneys say they did as they were trained

· Dec. 20, 2023, 6:52 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.

In their final message to a jury in Adams County, prosecutors on Wednesday leaned hard into the inaction of the medical professionals on the scene as Elijah McClain grew physically sicker in the custody of police. 

State Solicitor General Shannon Stevenson painted a callous picture of the 14 minutes Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper were on the scene while McClain was pinned to the ground and handcuffed by police officers before he lost his pulse in the ambulance.

“Here was their plan, ‘we’re going to leave that person on the ground … we’re not going to touch them, not with a single finger. We’re not going to get a single piece of equipment out of our bag,’” Stevenson said. “We’re not going to put our faces near his face. We’re not going to ask one question about what happened to him. We’re not going to listen to what he is trying to say to us.”

Cichuniec and Cooper each face reckless manslaughter and two second-degree assault charges for their alleged roles in McClain’s 2019 death. His pulse stopped in the ambulance after he was given a large dose of ketamine by paramedics. 

This is the third trial charging those involved in McClain’s violent encounter that night with crimes. One officer, Randy Roedema, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and will be sentenced in January. Two other officers on the scene were acquitted.

In closing arguments on Wednesday, lawyers representing the paramedics tried to introduce doubt to the prosecution’s claims that their clients’ actions —  or inactions —  on the scene amounted to criminal negligence. They also tried to raise doubt that giving McClain ketamine in a dose 50 percent higher than he should have received amounted to criminal recklessness.

“I submit to you they (prosecutors) didn’t prove what the standard of care is,” said David Goddard, Cichuniec’s attorney.

Several expert witnesses, including the forensic pathologist who performed McClain’s autopsy, called the level of ketamine in his blood “therapeutic.” But that same forensic pathologist also cited it in McClain’s cause of death, “following forcible restraint by police.”

“That’s all they have,” Goddard said. “Where is the evidence that this safe drug was given in a therapeutic dose … Where is the evidence that it killed Mr. McClain?”

Throughout the trial, defense attorneys tried to prove to jurors that Cichuniec and Cooper were simply following their training and protocols in dealing with a patient suffering from excited delirium. 

The term, which has since been struck from Aurora Fire Rescue training manuals and all law enforcement documents in Colorado, was used in 2019 to describe someone possibly overdosing on a drug who is exhibiting super-human strength, extreme sweating, deliriousness and a rapid heart rate. 

At the time, paramedics were trained on delirium and told that the best way to treat it was ketamine, a sedative. They were trained that if they didn’t know the patient’s body weight, they could give them a “small, medium or large” dose, 300, 400 or 500 milligrams. Cooper said he estimated McClain to be about 200 pounds based on his own weight of about 250 or 260 pounds. McClain actually weighed 143 pounds. 

Both Cichuniec and Cooper took the stand in their own defense and told the jury that the night of Aug. 24, 2019, when they arrived on the scene at the request of Aurora police officers, they saw McClain handcuffed on the ground struggling with officers. 

They said they assumed he had excited delirium and followed the rules on treating it with ketamine. 

Cooper said he tried twice to get close to McClain but was rebuffed by officers struggling with him. None of that was apparent on the body-worn camera footage, and Cooper never once asked officers to step away so he could treat him.

In body-worn camera footage, Cooper can be heard suggesting that they should give McClain ketamine. After that, officers agreed and told him that McClain was exhibiting “crazy” strength. 

In the intervening moments though, as they waited for an ambulance to arrive, along with the ketamine doses inside of it, Cooper and Cichuniec said they didn’t hear a police supervisor on the scene, Sgt. Dale Leonard, relay a few details about what happened, including that McClain had received two carotid holds, which cut blood flow off to his brain, and that he had been vomiting repeatedly ever since.

Both paramedics told jurors under oath they don’t remember that. They also said they didn’t know he had thrown up, even though Cichuniec did acknowledge that he stepped in it with his boot before the ketamine arrived. 

Defense attorney Mike Pellow, who represents Cooper, told the jurors that hindsight has bias, but that at that moment in time, his client knew very little about what was going on.

“They knew that the police were struggling with Mr. McClain, they knew it was a prolonged struggle … They also knew that Mr. McClain was not answering questions by the police,” he said. “They could observe he was breathing fast and he was sweating profusely.”

Pellow said that scenes like this “aren’t always what they seem.”

“It was protocol. Give ketamine. Wait for it to take effect,” Pellow said. “Rapid sedation is required. You treat that condition.”

But Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber told the jury that Cichuniec and Cooper treated McClain “like he was a problem, not like he was a patient.”

“He is just another young man fighting with police,” Slothouber said. “That’s how atrocious this was. They didn’t even try to help him.”

Prosecutors say they had a lot of time to take a different path — even make a decision not to give McClain the ketamine because he was nearly catatonic by the time the drug arrived on the scene in the ambulance —  but they didn’t do it.

“There was off-ramp after off-ramp where the defendants could have taken their feet off the gas in this blindfolded car, but didn’t,” Slothouber said. “Another young man … struggling with police … We’re just going to give him ketamine.”

The jury is expected to start deliberations on Thursday morning.

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