Colo. governor appoints AG to investigate death of restrained man given ketamine

Medics administered ketamine to Elijah McClain, 23, after police used a carotid control hold on him

Elizabeth Hernandez
The Denver Post

AURORA, Colo. — Amid a growing national outcry, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday designated Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain following a violent encounter with Aurora police last year.

Prosecutors opted not to charge the three Aurora officers involved in the incident, which culminated with McClain being placed in a chokehold, then given a sedative by medical personnel, after he refused to stop for police responding to a report of a suspicious person walking down the street.

The governor’s office said that if the facts support prosecution, Weiser would also criminally charge any individuals whose actions caused McClain’s death.

“I was moved by speaking with Elijah’s mother and her description of her son as a responsible and curious child who became a vegetarian to be healthier, and who could inspire the darkest soul,” Polis said in a statement. “His friends describe him as a gentle peacemaker who worked as a massage therapist and enjoyed playing the violin. Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern.”

Renewed attention on McClain’s death — through national press coverage and social media activism — comes amid a nationwide reckoning with police brutality against Black communities and racial inequities following the death last month of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“Whenever someone dies after an encounter with law enforcement, the community deserves a thorough investigation,” Weiser said in a statement. “Our investigation will be thorough, guided by the facts, and worthy of public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.

The statement from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office ended by saying there would be no further comment on the case until findings are announced, citing a need to remain impartial.

Aurora’s investigation

The move to launch a state-level investigation comes as Aurora grapples with its own attempts to reexamine McClain’s death, which was not ruled a homicide by the county coroner.

About two weeks ago, Aurora city leaders canceled a contract for a third-party investigation into McClain’s death in police custody after City Council members raised concerns that a former police officer was hired for the job.

Unbeknownst to McClain’s family, the City Council or taxpayers, Aurora city leaders in February hired attorney Eric Daigle, a former Connecticut State Police officer, to lead an investigation into the death. City Manager Jim Twombly publicly announced the hire this month for the first time and then canceled the contract the following day after community outcry.

Representing the McClain family, attorney Mari Newman said the family and community have demanded an independent investigation into the case since last fall.

“Only recently, in response to the outcry of millions of people across the globe and international media scrutiny, did Aurora finally claim to have hired a so-called ‘independent investigator,’ who media quickly revealed was actually a former police officer turned lawyer, whose legal practice is dedicated to defending police who use excessive force,” Newman said in a statement. “It is time for a responsible adult to step in, and I am glad that the governor is showing leadership. Elijah’s family is so thankful for the millions of people who have stood up to denounce the murder of their beloved son by Aurora police and medics. It should not take a massive petition and international media attention to hold law enforcement accountable for killing an innocent Black man.”

Following Polis’s initiation of a state investigation on Thursday, Mayor Mike Coffman noted in a Tweet that Aurora was a home-rule city and he would continue to schedule a vote at the July 6 City Council meeting to move forward with an independent city investigation and to decide on who will conduct that probe.

DA defends decision

Earlier Thursday, Dave Young, the prosecutor who determined there was no criminal wrongdoing by Aurora police officers or medical responders in McClain’s death, released a statement defending his decision as the case receives national attention and renewed calls for justice.

Young called McClain’s death “tragic” and “unnecessary,” but added that his job was limited to whether criminal charges should be filed against anyone involved.

“The forensic evidence revealed that the cause of death was undetermined,” Young wrote. “Specifically, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy stated that he was unable to conclude that the actions of any law enforcement officer caused Mr. McClain’s death. In order to prove any form of homicide in the state of Colorado it is mandatory that the prosecution prove that the accused caused the death of the victim. For those reasons, it is my opinion that the evidence does not support the filing of homicide.”

Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who sponsored the recently adopted police reform bill, applauded Polis’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor.

“After watching some of the interviews of Dave Young, it became very clear to me that he was not going to do anything,” Herod said. “I’m glad that he (Polis) took a step in the right direction. I still believe 100% all of this change has come from protests… we need to keep up the pressure.”

On Aug. 24, Aurora police officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema responded to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms while walking along Billings Street. Family members said McClain often wore masks when outside because of the blood condition anemia, which made him become cold easily.

McClain refused to stop when police first approached him. The 140-pound man was tackled and pinned to the ground, with officers using a “carotid control hold” on him. McClain asked police to stop, informing officers he couldn’t breathe and vomiting multiple times.

Medical responders then injected McClain with the heavy sedative ketamine, and he suffered cardiac arrest during the ambulance ride to a local hospital. McClain was declared brain dead a few days later.

“As a father, my heart breaks for the McClain family,” Polis said in a statement. “All Coloradans should be safe walking home from the convenience store, or just being in their own neighborhoods listening to headphones. Unfortunately, I know that is not how many people — especially young people of color — feel in our state today, because I’ve heard it from them directly. We need to do a better job, and at a bare minimum they deserve a thorough review of the case.”

Denver Post staff writer Alex Burness contributed to this report.


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