Paramedics found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in death of Elijah McClain

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Paramedics Peter Cichuniec, right, and Jeremy Cooper, left, walk into the Adams County Justice Center on Friday afternoon, Dec. 22, 2023, where they are on trial for their roles in the death of Elijah McClain.

Two Aurora paramedics were convicted of criminally negligent homicide for giving Elijah McClain, a Black, unarmed 23-year-old massage therapist, a fatal dose of ketamine in 2019 and not doing enough to help him while he struggled on the ground in handcuffs. 

The supervising paramedic was found guilty of assault for unlawful administration of drugs, as well as a sentence enhancer that it caused death.

Supervising paramedic Peter Cichuniec, 51, and Jeremy Cooper, 49, gave McClain an overdose of ketamine, a powerful sedative, a few minutes after he had been violently detained by police and was catatonic as he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground. 

Cichuniec’s guilty verdict in the second-degree assault charge has an in-custody requirement, so Cichuniec was handcuffed and led away from the courtroom. 

Both were found not guilty of reckless manslaughter, which is a more serious charge than criminally negligent homicide. 

Cichuniec and Cooper will be sentenced March 1, 2024.

As verdicts were read in the courtroom, families of both paramedics openly sobbed. When Cichuniec was handcuffed and had to empty his pockets on the defense table, one family member let out a high-pitched wail.

Before the verdict, the judge asked the courtroom to try and remain calm in this emotionally charged case.

On the other side, behind the prosecutors, Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, sat with Omar Montgomery, the Aurora NAACP president and MiDean Holmes, a community activist. Attorney General Phil Weiser sat in the same row and clutched hands with her before the verdict was read.

McClain and Holmes wept quietly during the verdict and exhaled audibly when Cichuniec was led away in handcuffs. When McClain and Holmes left together from the courthouse, they yelled, "We did it!! We did it!"

McClain had no immediate comment on the verdict, but has been following the trials in her son’s death daily since September. Earlier this week, she told CPR she was disgusted that the paramedics’ defense was that they were “following their training.”

“No amount of procedures, practices, protocols or the lack of training for service jobs will ever replace the human heart,” McClain’s mother said in a statement she sent to CPR News ahead of the verdict. “I am sure that if Elijah had been one of their children, family members, friends, or comrades, they would not have been so indifferent to what was happening, like they were with my son.”

Two days of deliberation

The jury deliberated two full days before reaching a verdict. At one point on Friday, they told the judge they had reached an impasse on one of the charges, but he told them to go back to the jury room together respectfully and try to reach a conclusion.

Throughout the weeks-long trial at the Adams County Justice Center, prosecutors leaned hard into the inaction of the medical professionals on the scene as McClain grew physically sicker in the custody of police.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Tears fall from Sheneen McClain’s face outside the Adams County Justice Center Friday night, Dec. 22, after a jury found two paramedics guilty the death of her son, Elijah McClain.

In closing arguments, state Solicitor General Shannon Stevenson painted a callous picture of the 14 minutes Cichuniec and 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.”

After McClain was given a large dose of ketamine by paramedics, body worn camera footage shows that they didn’t immediately tend to him, check his airway or otherwise look at his vital signs. One officer slapped him to make sure he was fully unconscious.

After a few minutes, they loaded him onto a gurney and his pulse stopped in the ambulance after he was given a large dose of ketamine by paramedics. He never regained consciousness.

One prosecution witness, a renowned critical care pulmonologist, testified that those moments after the overdose of ketamine could have been crucial for McClain.

“Maybe it was a little too much and you’re a little too sleepy and you’re starting to slip into deep sedation, I might be able to reposition your head. Or we put a little plastic tube in your nose or your mouth that helps to keep that tongue out of the back of your airway,” said Dr. David Beuther, a National Jewish Health pulmonologist, in testimony earlier this month. “If you can identify early … ‘hey this is a little more than we want,’ there’s a small correction that prevents us from having to have an emergency down the road.”

Third trial in the death of McClain

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

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. 

At the time, Aurora Fire Rescue allowed paramedics to administer ketamine without consent to treat delirium. Cooper said he quickly estimated McClain’s bodyweight to be around 200 pounds based on his own size of 250 or 260 pounds. McClain actually weighed 143 and received 50 percent more ketamine than he should have, prosecutors said.

Still, several expert witnesses called by defense attorneys called the level of ketamine in his blood “therapeutic,” as did the forensic pathologist who conducted McClain’s autopsy.  

That forensic pathologist, Dr. Stephen Cina, also cited ketamine in McClain’s cause of death, “following forcible restraint by police.”

In closing arguments, defense attorneys attempted to emphasize this.

“Where is the evidence that this safe drug, given in a therapeutic dose … Where is the evidence that it killed Mr. McClain?” said David Goddard, one of Cichuniec’s defense attorneys.

Throughout the trial, Goddard and other attorneys on the defense team tried to prove to jurors that Cichuniec and Cooper were simply following their training and protocols at the time both deferring to law enforcement controlling a scene and treating someone suffering from excited delirium.

In fact, Cichuniec told the jury he was worried at the time about undermedicating McClain. 

Ketamine and 'excited delirium' play big roles

Excited delirium, 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 trained on delirium were told that the best way to treat it was with 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 told jurors 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, tell them 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, during closing arguments. “That’s how atrocious this was. They didn’t even try to help him.”

Prosecutors said throughout the trial the paramedics 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.”

General counsel for Aurora Firefighters Local 1290, Charlie Richardson, was at the courthouse Friday. He was emotional while waiting for the outcome of the trial. 
“It’s outrageous that our paramedics received one and a half to two hours of training and were told that ketamine has a wide safety margin: he said.“The Attorney General office turns up four doctor professors who have spent 20 to 30 years .. to tell a jury that our paramedics killed Mr. McClain.”

He said Colorado paramedics should not be allowed to carry any chemical sedation if they can be convicted for its use.

Reaction to the convictions

After the verdict was read, Attorney General Phil Weiser spoke outside of the courthouse.

“We knew that these cases were going to be difficult to prosecute,” he said. “We are satisfied with today's verdict and we remain confident that bringing these cases forward was the right thing to do for justice for Elijah McClain and for healing in the Aurora community.

Weiser said that McClain’s life mattered and that he should still be alive. And while he said he was satisfied with the conviction, he said there was still work to be done.

“Accountability does not end with these trials. Too often when we've seen people die at the hands of law enforcement officers because of situations that got escalated unnecessarily and never should have used force. That's a call on us to continue this work for Elijah's memory to continue as a blessing,” Weiser said.

The president of the Aurora NAACP also spoke. Omar Montgomery thanked Weiser for taking the case to court so that McClain could have a voice.

“As we have always done, we stand with Sheneen McClain to continue, not just to have justice in the courtroom, but to reform public safety in the city of Aurora and nationwide,” Montgomery said.
For Aurora Fire Rescue, the convictions were called concerning. Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Alec Oughton released a statement Friday evening about the verdict.

“While I appreciate the jury’s diligence, integrity and public service to ensure a fair trial,” Oughton said in the statement. “I am discouraged that these paramedics have received felony punishment for following their training and protocols in place at the time and for making discretionary decisions while taking split-second action in a dynamic environment.”

He said Aurora Fire Rescue “has taken specific action to make critical changes in how we operate to protect our community and our members. Since this tragic incident, AFR has implemented numerous changes to policies, protocols and training.”

Some of those changes relate directly to what happened to McClain. They include clarifying who is in charge of a scene and a medical branch within the agency to increase oversight.