© Reuters. Paramedic Jeremy Cooper leaves the Adams County District Court while a jury deliberates in a trial where he and another paramedic are accused in the death of Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who died in police custody in 2019 after he was subdued and
By Brad Brooks
LONGMONT, Colorado (Reuters) -Two Colorado paramedics were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide by a jury on Friday 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 choke hold, and the medics injected him with a powerful sedative.
The trial of paramedics Jeremy Cooper, 49, and Peter Cichuniec, 51, was the last of three involving the death of McClain, 23, who was stopped by police after a bystander reported he looked suspicious. The first ended with one police officer found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and another acquitted. The second ended with a third officer being acquitted in the death of McClain, who was not alleged to have committed any crime when officers stopped him.
In a statement Saturday, McClain’s mother Sheneen McClain said “three out of five convictions are not justice. The only thing the convictions serve is a very small acknowledgement of accountability in the justice system.”
In addition to finding both paramedics guilty of criminally negligent homicide, punishable by up to three years in prison, the jury also found Cichuniec guilty of assault in the second degree for the administration of the sedative. It was a rare trial of paramedics in such a case.
Judge Mark Warner ordered Cichuniec be taken into custody immediately, while Cooper remained free on bond pending a March 1 sentencing.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, speaking outside the courtroom Friday, said accountability would not end with the convictions, saying 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.
Cooper and Cichuniec both took the stand during their trial in Adams County District Court near Denver. They told the jury they believed the sedative ketamine was required to calm McClain, and that 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.
Prosecutors said the paramedics incorrectly decided that McClain was in a state of “excited delirium,” a condition said to consist of agitation, aggression, acute distress and sudden death. Many medical experts, including the American Medical Association, argue the condition does not exist and have opposed using the diagnosis for law enforcement purposes.
The paramedics injected him with 500 mg of the sedative, wrongly estimating his weight to be 200 pounds (91 kg), prosecutors said. McClain weighed 143 pounds (65 kg).
“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.
The defense rejected that, arguing, based on the training available in 2019, the paramedics acted appropriately.
“The relevant question is whether it was reasonable for these two gentlemen to believe that he was suffering from excited delirium, that he was acting consistent with what their training and their protocol told them was excited delirium,” defense attorney David Goddard said in his closing.
Colorado’s Peace Officers Standards and Training board ruled on Dec. 1 that “excited delirium” could no longer be taught as a diagnosis to new officers in training. A bill is pending before Colorado lawmakers that would ban excited delirium from all police and emergency medical services (EMS) training, and would not allow coroners to list it as a cause of death.
Police confronted McClain on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, after a bystander called 911 to report 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.” But 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.
In her statement Saturday, Sheneen McClain said her “son’s murder case is part of a continuum of hatred that is spread throughout this world. Hate, racism, oppression and greed are only some of the tools that evil forces use to divide in order to conquer.”