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Former Colorado paramedic sentenced to 5 years after conviction in death of Elijah McClain

First responders react to former paramedic sentenced to 5 years for death of Elijah McClain
First responders react to former paramedic being sentenced to 5 years 03:27

One of the two paramedics who were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Elijah McClain was sentenced on Friday.

Former Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic Peter Cichuniec was sentenced to 5 years in prison -- the minimum sentence -- and 3 years of probation on Friday by Adams County District Judge Mark Warner. He said the sentence and the example it might send are tied to public safety, but also said he does not believe Cichuniec is a risk to the public.

McClain was walking home in August 2019 when the 23-year-old Black man was confronted by police officers who forcibly restrained him and then the Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics -- Jeremy Cooper and Cichuniec -- injected him with ketamine.  

Body camera video from an Aurora police officer shows paramedics injecting Elijah McClain with ketamine. Aurora Police Department

He went into cardiac arrest in an ambulance a few minutes later and died three days after that.

Cooper and Cichuniec were both convicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide in December 2023.

Cichuniec was also found guilty of second-degree assault-unlawful administration of drugs, a conviction that typically carries a 5- to 16-year prison sentence. He appeared in court in a prison jumpsuit in handcuffs Friday.

Elijah McClain Officer Sentenced
Paramedic Peter Cichuniec, convicted for his role in Elijah McClain's death sits in court before his sentencing on Friday, March 1, 2024 in Brighton, Colo. Cichuniec was sentenced to five years in prison for the death of McClain in a rare prosecution of medical responders that has left officials rethinking how they treat people in police custody. Colorado State Court via the Associated Press, POOL

Peter Cichuniec's friends and family

During victim impact statements, several family members and friends spoke on behalf of Cichuniec.

Lainey Garrison, a friend and former neighbor of Cichuniec and his family, was the first to speak.

"Pete is one of the best people I know," she said, her voice breaking. "He's the last person that would have any ill intent or hatred toward anyone."

Garrison said her kids grew up playing with Cichuniec's kids and are a similar age.

His wife Katie Cichuniec and sons Jack and Ryan Cichuniec then stood together at the podium. His wife Katie said through tears that the approximately 100 letters of support of her husband received by the court don't begin to speak to his character as a husband and father.

"Pete has always been my rock but never more than in 2021 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer," she said. "He was at every single appointment."

Katie Cichuniec, wife of former Aurora paramedic Peter Cichuniec, speaks on her husband's behalf during the victim impact statement portion of her husband's sentencing hearing on Friday, March 1, 2024. CBS

"He literally held me up and helped me walk when I was sick from treatment," she continued. "That's his character. He has never been cruel or intentionally hurt anyone with his actions or words."

Jack Cichuniec, Peter's 21-year-old son, said his father has been a constant source of inspiration and support amid a bone marrow disorder diagnosis.

"As an adult, I consider him one of my closest friends," he said. "My dad consistently embodies the spirit of a selfless man, who I consider a hero."

"I hope to be half the man, husband, father and citizen that he is," he said, before requesting the judge impose the minimum sentence.

Ryan Cichuniec, Peter's other son, said his father "was always there."

"He's an honorable man," he said. "I would really appreciate you giving him leniency."

Following statements from his family, fellow emergency medical professionals defended Peter Cichuniec and, at times, criticized the prosecution. One said the jury lacked understanding of the job of paramedics.

Peter Cichuniec then took the stand himself.

"I wish I could tell Ms. McClain that Elijah was going to be okay," he said, just as he said he wished he could tell many loved ones of deceased victims in incidents he responded to. "But I can't."

Former Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic Peter Cichuniec speaks at the sentencing portion of his trial after being convicted of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault-unlawful administration of drugs in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain. CBS

"We can't save everyone. I wish my mind could forget the things my eyes have seen over the last 18 years," he continued. "Elijah will always be on my mind, along with all the others."

He said he and his fellow paramedics never had the opportunity to go through video previously recorded by security cameras or police body-worn cameras, saying they had to make a "split-second decision" and didn't have time to second-guess the police's words at the scene."

"I'm truly sorry for the loss of her son's life," he said of Sheneen McClain, Elijah's mother. "I'm begging for mercy from the court."

His attorney asked the judge for leniency in sentencing, including rehabilitation, saying there was no evidence that his client intended to hurt Elijah McClain.

"Divine justice for my son, Elijah McClain."

Sheneen McClain spoke about her son during the victim impact statement portion of the hearing. She described having admired firefighters growing up until her son died at the hands of two paramedics.

"You cannot say you're not training people to be robots when they find no fault in their actions," she said. "I watched my son's murder on bodycam video so many times because I want to know why they didn't save him."

Sheneen McClain, Elijah McClain's mother, speaks during former Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic Peter Cichuniec's sentencing hearing on Friday, March 1, 2024. CBS

"If Peter's child, family member, friend or coworker was laying on that ground the way my son Elijah McClain was, I guarantee you when Peter arrived, he would not have allowed the brutality to continue," she said. "He did not try to save my son's life."

Sheneen McClain characterized her son's death as a "murder" and his detention by police and paramedics as a "kidnapping" several times in her speech.

"Elijah will never be a husband or a father," she continued. "I have righteous anger toward those that made sure my son would never see another day."

Sheneen McClain concluded: "Divine justice for my son, Elijah McClain."

Sheneen McClain gives statement after paramedic sentence for death of Elijah McClain 00:55

Jason Slothouber, one of the prosecutors, spoke about Elijah McClain's personality, caring for everyone around him while trying to better himself. He characterized the killing as just one in a long line of unarmed Black men killed at the hands of police and other first responders and the shattering of trust between those responders and the public, both in Aurora and beyond.

He said Cichuniec knew he gave Elijah McClain too much ketamine and was the senior-most medical professional at the scene the night McClain was taken to the hospital.

After the judge ruled on the case, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser issued a statement, calling that sentence accountability for Cichuniec's actions.

"No action will bring Elijah back or take away the pain and loss that his mother, Sheneen McClain, continues to experience," he said, in part. "But today's sentence from the court is one of accountability for the defendant's criminal negligence in the death of Elijah McClain. It sends a strong message that no profession, whether a paramedic, a nurse, a police officer, an elected official, or a CEO should be immune from criminal prosecution for actions that violate the law and harm people."

Sheneen McClain, left, the mother of Elijah McClain, and a supporter leave the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, Colorado on Friday, March 1, 2024. A jury convicted Peter Cichuniec of criminally negligent homicide in the 23-year-old's death in 2019. Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Sheneen McClain left the courthouse after the sentence was handed down with a fist raised -- a common symbol of hers after leaving previous court hearings and trials related to her son's killing.

McClain's death, investigation and other court cases

In Elijah McClain's 2019 death, the coroner's office in Adams County initially couldn't determine how McClain died, but after social justice protests drew attention to the case, a medical examiner ultimately found that he died from complications of ketamine following forcible restraint. That led to a 2021 indictment of three police officers -- Randy Roedema, Jason Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard -- and the two paramedics.

Throughout their weeks-long trial, the use of the sedative that Cooper and Cichuniec injected McClain with and the amount given to him came under scrutiny. In 2018, Colorado state regulators had approved the drug for someone who was in an "agitated state" and showing signs of "excited delirium." The defense for both men argued that was the case -- that they were following their training by giving ketamine to McClain because he was showing an unusual amount of strength as he was being restrained and was acting in a strange way, they said.

Three officers from the Aurora Police Department have been tried in connection to McClain's death. Last fall, two of the officers were acquitted in Elijah's death and a third was found guilty. 

A jury found Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault, while Jason Rosenblatt was found not guilty of manslaughter and assault in October 2023. A jury also found Nathan Woodyard not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the 23-year-old's death.

In January, Roedema was sentenced to 14 months in jail along with four years of probation. He has filed an appeal and is asking the court to review nine different aspects of the case.

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

Cooper, the other paramedic who was convicted, is scheduled to be sentenced on April 26.

RELATED: Read all our coverage of Elijah McClain here

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