US paramedics found guilty in 2019 death of Black man Elijah McClain

McClain fell unconscious after police put him in a chokehold before paramedics injected him with powerful sedative.

A sign that states some of Elijah McClain’s last words
A sign with some of Elijah McClain's last words at a candlelight vigil for him during a protest against racial inequality in the US state of Colorado in 2020 [File: Kevin Mohatt/Reuters]

Two paramedics in the western US state of Colorado have been found guilty of criminally negligent homicide for their role in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who died after police roughly detained him, put him in a chokehold, before the medics injected him with a powerful sedative.

A jury handed down its verdicts on Friday against Jeremy Cooper, 49, and Peter Cichuniec, 51, and also found the latter guilty of assault in the second degree for the administration of a high dose of the sedative ketamine.

The death of 23-year-old McClain was the first among several recent criminal prosecutions against medical first responders to reach trial, potentially setting the bar for prosecutors for future cases.

It was also the last of three trials against police and paramedics charged in the death of McClain, whom officers stopped after a suspicious person complaint. The first trial ended with one police officer being found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and another acquitted. The second ended with a third officer being acquitted.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, wept outside the court on Friday as a supporter of the McClain family, MiDian Holmes, spoke with reporters on her behalf.

“We do not know justice until we see sentencing,” Holmes said. “We are still seeking justice.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said accountability would not end with the convictions, and that much more work needs to be done to prevent the deaths of innocents at the hands of police and other first responders.

“Elijah did nothing wrong. His life mattered. He should be with us here today,” Weiser said.

‘They killed him’

During their trial, Cooper and Cichuniec told the jury they believed the ketamine was required to calm McClain, and police officers who were roughly detaining him interfered with their ability to quickly treat him.

But prosecutors argued throughout the trial that the paramedics violated their training protocols by failing to examine McClain before injecting him with the maximum allowed dose of ketamine.

“These defendants didn’t even try. When Elijah McClain pleaded ‘Please help me’, they left him there, they overdosed him on ketamine … they killed him,” prosecutor Jason Slothouber said during closing arguments on Wednesday.

Police confronted McClain on the night of August 24, 2019, after a bystander called 911 to report that the man was dressed in a winter coat and ski mask on a warm night, and was acting suspiciously as he walked home from a convenience store.

Police laid hands on McClain within seconds of stopping him and put him in a carotid chokehold at least twice. He vomited into his ski mask and repeatedly told officers he could not breathe.

The original autopsy conducted on McClain in 2019 found the cause of death to be “undetermined”. However, a revised autopsy report in 2021 concluded McClain died from “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint”.

Local prosecutors initially declined to file charges. That changed following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

After Floyd’s death ignited global protests, Colorado Governor Jared Polis in June 2020 asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate McClain’s case. A state grand jury indicted the officers and paramedics in 2021.

Source: News Agencies