Elijah McClain: First trial begins for Aurora police charged in death

Four years ago, Elijah McClain died after Aurora police officers tackled him and paramedics injected the 23-year-old with an overdose of the sedative ketamine.

The violent arrest of a young Black man wrongly detained by white police officers sparked a national outcry in 2020 and led to a litany of protests, reforms and consequences that are still impacting Aurora and the state as a whole.

McClain’s death led thousands of Coloradans to take to the streets to protest police brutality, prompted changes to state law to limit the use of ketamine during police encounters and triggered a consent decree over the Aurora Police Department. The city agreed to pay $15 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents, at the time the largest police misconduct settlement in the state. And after McClain’s death, six protest leaders were charged with felonies in cases that all were later dropped — and two people were shot at an Aurora police protest and the shooter avoided prison.

Now, the four-year saga is entering a new chapter. A jury trial starts Friday in Aurora for two of the police officers charged in McClain’s killing — the first of three trials set to take place this fall for the three officers and two paramedics charged in his death.

Jury selection begins Friday morning for Aurora police officer Randy Roedema and former officer Jason Rosenblatt, who each are charged with reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault in connection with McClain’s death. Some 250 jurors have been called, with jury selection expected to last into early next week.

The two officers, who helped restrain McClain during the Aug. 24, 2019, arrest, will go through a joint jury trial.

Officer Nathan Woodyard, who is accused of putting McClain in a chokehold that caused the 23-year-old to lose consciousness, is scheduled to stand trial alone in October. Paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, who injected McClain with an overdose of ketamine after vastly overestimating his weight, are scheduled for a joint jury trial in November.

McClain was walking home from a gas station — wearing a black ski mask as he often did — when someone called 911 to report a suspicious person. The responding officers detained McClain, violently forced him to the ground and handcuffed him before a paramedic injected McClain with ketamine. McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, where he was later declared brain dead. He died Aug. 30, 2019.

On Wednesday, Cooper and Cichuniec filed petitions to the Colorado Supreme Court asking the justices to consider whether Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office has the proper jurisdiction to prosecute the cases even after the local district attorney declined to bring charges in McClain’s death. A district court judge already ruled that Weiser does have the jurisdiction; the petition asks the justices to review that judge’s decision and to dismiss the charges if the judge was wrong.

The Colorado Supreme Court justices will choose whether or not to take up the issue. In the 28-page petitions, Rosenblatt, Roedema and Woodyard say they would join the appeal if the justices agree to consider the jurisdictional issue. If the court takes up the issue, it could delay or end the prosecution against the officers and paramedics. If the court decides not to take the case, the jury trials will continue as planned.

Roedema, Woodyard, Cooper and Cichuniec have been suspended without pay from their jobs while the criminal cases are pending against them. If they are acquitted of felony charges, they’ll receive back pay and can return to their jobs; if they’re convicted, they’ll be fired, according to the city’s charter.

Rosenblatt was fired in 2020 after responding “ha ha” in a text message to a mocking photo three other Aurora police officers took at the site of McClain’s arrest.

Each trial is expected to last weeks — Rosenblatt and Roedema’s is scheduled through Oct. 17 — as prosecutors and defense attorneys present the complex cases to jurors. Reckless manslaughter is a mid-level felony in Colorado and carries a typical sentence two to six years in prison.

“Police accountability is essential”

It’s rare for police officers to face criminal prosecutions, and even more rare for them to be convicted, said Tim Macdonald, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. As the jury trials begin, those who have been involved with the case from the beginning are keeping a close watch — some hopeful the officers will be held accountable for McClain’s death, others skeptical that the court process will deliver meaningful justice.

“There nothing that is going to renew my faith (in the justice system),” said Candice Bailey, an activist heavily involved in organizing protests after McClain’s death. “Is there an outcome that sounds best? Yes, find them guilty and sentence them appropriately.”

The officers’ trials come amid a shifting national landscape in which prosecutors are showing more willingness to bring criminal charges against officers in excessive force cases, said Jack Glaser, professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley.

But he said a number of factors make those prosecutions difficult. Some jurors may trust a police officer’s testimony over others simply because the person is a police officer, he said.

“There’s a general phenomenon that people want to believe the systems they live in are just, so there is a tendency to defer to the system in that respect,” he said.

And then there’s the racial component: McClain, a Black man, died in the custody of five white men. In criminal prosecutions, research shows the least likely defendants to be convicted are white defendants with Black victims, Glaser said, while the most likely to be convicted are Black defendants with white victims.

“The research evidence is very clear that all else being equal, Black people, and particularly young Black men, are regarded with greater suspicion and seen as more dangerous and aggressive by white people in general, and by police officers — Black police officers as well,” he said. “There is nothing that makes you invulnerable to stereotypes in your own group.”

The outcome of this first jury trial in McClain’s death will make a statement one way or another, Macdonald said.

“An acquittal would send a message that folks can act with impunity,” he said. “…Hopefully this trial will show that police accountability is essential to the community, to trust and safety.”

Reform takes time

Omar Montgomery, president of the NAACP in Aurora, said McClain’s death already has spurred significant changes in Aurora and said the NAACP is glad to see McClain’s family “have their day in court.”

“As a result of the murder of Elijah McClain, there has been significant progress,” he said. “…There is more transparency and accountability. And now we have a stronger voice in what public safety looks like in the city of Aurora.”

The Aurora Police Department changed its policies surrounding the use of force, biased policing and hiring after entering into a consent-decree agreement with Weiser in 2021. The consent decree gives the attorney general’s office the power to force and enforce reforms in the police department.

An investigation by Weiser’s office found that the police department had a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, using force excessively and failing to document stops as required. Weiser’s office is also prosecuting the defendants in McClain’s death.

But the reform process takes time.

“There are still a lot of people in the community waiting to see whether those are just paper changes or whether they will actually have an impact on the way in which Aurora polices its citizens,” Macdonald said.

Joe Moylan, a spokesman for Aurora police, declined to discuss what changes have been made at the police department following McClain’s death, citing the upcoming jury trial.

Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, did not return a request for comment. Montgomery said his organization will try to support her during the court hearings, where her son’s agonizing arrest will be dissected, displayed, watched and listened to again and again.

“How many times (does) she has to relive this tragedy, whether it’s in the press, whether it’s a trial?” Montgomery said. “Nothing will ever bring Elijah McClain back.”

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