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Ketamine at center of charges against Colo. medics in Elijah McClain’s death

Colorado Solictor General Shannon Stevenson said the Aurora paramedics administered too much ketamine for McClain’s body weight

Elijah McClain Trial

Paramedics Jeremy Cooper, left, and Peter Cichuniec, right, attend an arraignment at the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, Colo., on Jan. 20, 2023. The third and final trial over the 2019 death of Elijah McClain after he was stopped by police in suburban Denver involves homicide and manslaughter charges against two paramedics, a prosecution experts say enters largely uncharted legal territory by levying criminal charges against medical first responders. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via AP, file)

By Colleen Slevin and Matthew Brown
Associated Press

BRIGHTON, Colo. — Two paramedics “did nothing” to help an ailing Elijah McClain as he lay on the ground, a Colorado prosecutor said Wednesday, and instead they overdosed him with a powerful sedative that killed the 23-year-old Black man after officers forcibly restrained him as he walked home from a convenience store.

Defense attorneys, however, sought to shift blame to the officers during opening statements in the final jury trial over McClain’s 2019 death in a Denver suburb. One said there was not much the paramedics could do as police pinned down McClain, with a sergeant at one point stepping on McClain’s legs and another officer slamming him to the ground.

The trial is expected to last weeks and explore largely uncharted legal territory because it is rare for medical first responders to face criminal charges.

[EARLIER: Elijah McClain’s death trial puts attention on Colo. paramedics]

Initially, no one was charged because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died. Social justice protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd drew renewed attention to McClain’s case, and a grand jury indicted the paramedics and three officers in 2021.

The officers already have gone to trial and two were acquitted, one who administered a neck hold on McClain and another who is back at work for the Aurora Police Department. The third officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.

Aurora Fire Department paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and several counts each of assault.

Colorado Solictor General Shannon Stevenson told jurors that McClain was their patient but Cooper and Cichuniec did not give him any medical treatment, never opening their medical equipment bag or touching him. Instead, she said that as McClain was held by police facedown on the ground, not speaking and barely moving, they injected him with the maximum authorized dose of a powerful sedative that he did not need and that was too much for someone his weight, which was 140 pounds (64 kilograms)

“He would have been better off if they had never come,” said Stevenson, who said the paramedics did not need police permission to treat McClain.

Cooper’s attorney Shana Beggan said the paramedics decided to use the sedative ketamine based on the officers’ description of McClain, such as resisting their “pain compliance” techniques and having superhuman strength. She said those are both signs of “excited delirium,” a disputed condition that Beggan said the paramedics’ training tells them requires ketamine to be administered. Critics say the condition has been used to justify excessive force and some doctor’s groups reject excited delirium as a diagnosis.

[RELATED: American College of Emergency Physicians withdraws position on excited delirium]

“They’re not being told that Elijah said, ‘I’m just going home.’ They were never told that Elijah said he couldn’t breathe,” she said. “Who’s in control of the scene? It’s law enforcement. They’re in control the entire time.”

Once McClain was put on a stretcher and his handcuffs removed, Cooper started directing his fellow medics about how to treat McClain, she said.

Cichuniec’s lawyer, Michael Lowe, said the paramedics’ training required that they put McClain in soft restraints on the gurney before monitoring his condition.

In the ambulance, McClain, a massage therapist known for his gentle nature, went into cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead three days later.

The amended coroner’s report in 2021 found McClain died from “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.” Prosecution experts who testified during the earlier trials did not all agree on the role the police’s actions played in McClain’s death but all said that the ketamine was the main cause.

McClain’s death brought increased scrutiny to how police and paramedics use ketamine. It is often used at the behest of police if they believe suspects are out of control.

The fatal encounter on Aug. 24, 2019, began when a 911 caller reported that the man looked “sketchy” as he walked down the street wearing a ski mask and raising his hands in the air.

McClain, who was often cold, was walking home from a convenience store, listening to music.

Moments later, police stopped him and after a struggle in which they initially failed to put him in a neck hold, they eventually were able to. He was rendered briefly unconscious, prompting police to call for paramedics while officers restrained him on the ground.

The convicted officer, Randy Roedema, faces anywhere from probation to prison time when he is sentenced next month.

Officer Nathan Woodyard, who was acquitted, has returned to work on restricted duty as he gets caught up on changes made at the agency since his 2021 suspension. They include reforms the department agreed to after a state attorney general’s office investigation launched amid outrage over McClain’s death found a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive force in Aurora.

Woodyard will get $212,546 in back pay.

The other acquitted officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was fired in 2020 for his reaction to a photo reenacting a neck hold like the one used on McClain. When officers sent the photo to him, he responded “ha ha.”

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