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Prosecution: Colo. medics overdosed Elijah McClain with ketamine

In closing arguments, Colorado Solicitor General Shannon Stevenson said the Aurora paramedics did not properly assess McClain’s condition

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)

Andy Cross/AP

By Matthew Brown and Colleen Slevin
Associated Press

BRIGHTON, Colo. — A Colorado prosecutor told jurors Wednesday in a criminal trial against two paramedics that they failed to properly care for Elijah McClain when they overdosed the Black man with a sedative that he didn’t need, leading to his death following a 2019 police encounter.

Aurora paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec are being tried for manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault. The case has explored largely uncharted legal territory because experts say it is rare for medical first responders to face criminal charges.

[EARLIER: Colo. medics take the stand in Elijah McClain death trial]

Three officers from the Denver suburb already have gone to trial over McClain’s death. Two were acquitted, including one who has since returned to work for the Aurora Police Department. The third officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.

Defense attorneys have argued the paramedics followed their training in giving ketamine to McClain after deciding he had “excited delirium,” a disputed condition some say is unscientific and has been used to justify excessive force. They also have said prosecutors have not proven that the sedative is what killed him.

[RELATED: Excited delirium: Understanding the evolution away from a controversial term]

Paramedics in Aurora had been trained to use the drug for the condition in 2018. State officials have since told paramedics to stop using excited delirium as a basis for administering ketamine.

Colorado Solicitor General Shannon Stevenson told jurors during closing arguments the paramedics did not conduct basic medical checks of McClain such as taking his pulse before giving him the ketamine. The paramedics called to the scene incorrectly estimated his weight, giving him more than 1.5 times the dose he should have received, officials have said.

“There was no justification not to assess Mr. McClain. There was no justification to give someone who was not moving a sedative,” Stevenson said. “The defendants knew the risk of giving an overdose of ketamine.”

Stevenson said the paramedics ignored the risk the drug posed to slowing McClain’s breathing, leaving him lying on the ground unable to breathe freely and clear vomit from his body. As she spoke, McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, sat in the front row of the courtroom, dabbing her eyes with tissues as a supporter wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, had been forcibly restrained by police officers — including with a neck hold that rendered him temporarily unconscious — when he was stopped while walking home from a convenience store. He went into cardiac arrest in an ambulance a few minutes after the paramedics injected him with ketamine. He died three days later.

Cichuniec, who testified along with Cooper this week, said paramedics were trained that they had to work quickly to treat excited delirium with ketamine so that patients could be taken to the hospital for treatment. They were told numerous times in training that it was an effective drug and were not warned about the possibility of it killing anyone.

“We were taught that is a safe drug and it will not kill them,” he testified.

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

Cooper’s attorney told jurors Wednesday that there was no evidence the paramedics intended to hurt McClain. Attorney Mike Pellow said the paramedics had “tried desperately” to save McClain on the way to the hospital and that the case was criminalizing the conduct of first responders trying to comply with their training protocols.

The defense has also said there was not much the paramedics could do while police had McClain pinned down, with an officer slamming him to the ground at one point.

“What is Mr. Cooper supposed to do at that point? Say, ‘Hey, get the heck off my patient?’” Pellow asked.

Cichuniec attorney David Goddard said it was “entirely reasonable” for the paramedics to believe McClain was suffering from excited delirium and needed ketamine, based on seeing McClain being held down by three officers and police descriptions of his behavior.

“They’re told by police that Mr. McClain was demonstrating incredible strength, crazy strength,” Goddard said. “That information fits squarely within the signs and symptoms of excited delirium.”

No one was charged initially in McClain’s death because the coroner’s office could not determine how he died. But social justice protests over the 2020 murder of George Floyd drew renewed attention to McClain’s case — which led to the 2021 indictment of the police officers and paramedics.

The city of Aurora agreed in 2021 to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents.