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Elijah McClain death: Paramedics who injected Colorado Black man with ketamine found guilty

Paramedics receive convictions in the death of Elijah McClain
Paramedics receive convictions in the death of Elijah McClain 02:55

A Colorado jury on Friday found two paramedics guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Elijah McClain near his home in Aurora. The 23-year-old Black man was walking home in 2019 when he was confronted by police officers who forcibly restrained him and then the Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics -- Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec -- who injected him with ketamine. 

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

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. As for the counts of second-degree assault, Cooper was acquitted of those charges. Cichuniec was found guilty of second-degree assault-unlawful administration of drugs and found not guilty on the other second-degree assault charge.

Cichuniec was taken into custody immediately following the verdict.   

Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec in Adams County Court as the guilty verdicts were read.  CBS

"We knew that these cases were going to be difficult to prosecute. We are satisfied by today's verdict and we remain confident that bringing these cases forward was the right thing to do for Justice For Elijah McClain," said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. "His life mattered. He should be with us here today."

"I watched as the prosecution delivered the truth about what happened to Elijah in 2019. The truth is now real and it is available for the people," said McClain family friend and supporter MiDian Holmes. 

Sheneen McClain had her fist raised in the air in memory of her son Elijah after the verdict was read for the two paramedics found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the 23-year-old's death.  CBS

Holmes stood by Weiser who was also joined by McClain's mother Sheneen McClain. They were spotted together before the news conference exiting the courthouse after the verdict. Sheneen had her fist raised in the air in memory of her son Elijah. 

"His name was and always will be Elijah McClain. We love you, Elijah McClain," said Holmes.

Sheneen McClain, through a family spokesperson, issued a statement on the convictions Saturday morning.

"The firefighters/paramedics could have made a difference for Elijah to still be here and alive, but they chose wrong instead of right. If they had done the right things instead of following killer cop orders, then the killer cops would have been the only ones on trial, and I am sure they would have faced all of the blame alone with no one to cover up their crimes. Ketamine causes amnesia, so if Elijah had survived, he wouldn't have remembered what happened to him," she said, in part.

"No, the three out of five convictions are not justice," she continued, referring to the two Aurora police officers who were acquitted. "The only thing the convictions serve is a very small acknowledgment of accountability in the justice system. There were at least 20 individuals there the night my son was alive and talking before he was brutally murdered."

Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec walk into the courtroom before the verdict finding them both guilty of criminally negligent homicide was read on Friday. CBS

The coroner's office in Adams County 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.

 RELATED: Colorado may soon bar police and coroners from referencing "excited delirium" in lethal force cases

Cooper and Cichuniec said they were told numerous times in their medical training that ketamine was an effective drug and they were not warned about the possibility of it killing anyone.

"We were taught that is a safe drug and it will not kill them," said Cichuniec, when he took the stand in his defense.

Jeremy Cooper, left, and Peter Cichuniec, center CBS

Cooper also testified in the trial, and both paramedics testified that the police officers didn't fully tell them about McClain's condition when they arrived on the scene of McClain's encounter. One paramedic said they felt the need to quickly provide care for McClain after seeing police officers slam him to the ground. They say the officers didn't tell them, however, that they had placed McClain in a neck hold.

When they each took the stand, prosecutors pressed them on whether their medical training had set guidelines for how much ketamine an agitated person who was demonstrating excited delirium should receive. Ketamine is a weight-based drug, and the amount McClain received was for a person more than 200 pounds. Cooper told the court he estimated McClain's weight to be about 200 pounds. McClain actually weighed closer to 140 pounds.

Cichuniec told the court McClain received the maximum dose of ketamine because of his agitated state, saying it was also an effort to save McClain's life.

"In this case, with excited delirium, it could kill you," Cichuniec testified. "If we don't work fast, he could die. ... Time is of the essence. I went off training and went up to 500 (milligrams)."

Excited delirium is a disputed condition some say is unscientific.

Cichuniec's 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."

The prosecution questioned the paramedics' decision not to ask McClain any questions before using the ketamine. Cooper testified that he didn't do so because he didn't want to escalate the situation.

During closing arguments on Wednesday Colorado Solicitor General Shannon Stevenson told jurors the paramedics did not conduct basic medical checks of McClain such as taking his pulse before giving him the ketamine.

"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."

It's rare for medical first responders to face criminal charges.

This was the third and final trial for the five first responders who were charged in McClain's death. Three officers from the Aurora Police Department have been tried in connection to McClain's death. Two were acquitted, 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 back in October. Sentencing for Roedema is scheduled for Jan. 5 at 1:30 p.m. in Adams County Court. 

jury also found Nathan Woodyard not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the 23-year-old's death. Since the verdict, he has returned to the Aurora Police Department. 

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

RELATED: Read all our coverage of Elijah McClain here

The chief of Aurora Fire Rescue released this statement on Friday night: 

On behalf of all the members of Aurora Fire Rescue, I'd like to first express my deepest condolences to Elijah McClain's family for their tragic loss in August 2019.

I am deeply concerned and disappointed that our medics, Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, have both been convicted of Criminally Negligent Homicide in the trial stemming from the death of Mr. McClain. Both have been convicted of Criminally Negligent Homicide. Mr. Cichuniec also has been convicted of Assault 2 - Unlawful Administration of Drugs with a Crime of Violence Enhancer. On the count of Assault in the Second Degree, Mr. Cooper was acquitted.

While I appreciate the jury's diligence, integrity and public service to ensure a fair trial, I am discouraged that these paramedics have received felony punishment for following their training and protocols in place at the time and for making discretionary decisions while taking split-second action in a dynamic environment.

The community has asked for true pathways to accountability, transparency and justice to ensure incidents like this don't happen in the future. We are committed to continuous improvement in our organization. In full transparency and accountability, AFR has taken specific action to make critical changes in how we operate to protect our community and our members. Since this tragic incident, AFR has implemented numerous changes to policies, protocols and training. Among other changes, we have:

  • Re-established a medical branch within our department to enhance oversight of our emergency medical procedures and incidents.
  • Implemented protocols to clarify who is in charge when multiple agencies are on scene.
  • Required 100% quality-assurance review on all sedative administration and strict adherence to this new protocol.
  • Implemented new citywide protocols to dispatch the appropriate level of care to each call received by Aurora911.
  • Greatly increased our communication and coordination with community groups and Aurora residents to gain more input on how AFR can better serve them.

As Fire Chief overseeing Aurora Fire Rescue, I take responsibility for the safekeeping of our community and our team of professionals that serve them.

The International Association of Fire Fighters issued a statement after the verdict. 

"Today's verdicts against Fire Fighter/Paramedic Jeremy Cooper and Captain Pete Cichuniec only compound this tragedy. Colorado Attorney General Weiser's decision to criminalize split-second medical decisions sets a dangerous, chilling precedent for pre-hospital care in our country. There are far-reaching consequences we will address at a more appropriate time. But when politics drive prosecution – forcing firefighters and paramedics to second-guess decisions – public safety is compromised."  
– Edward A. Kelly, General President, International Association of Fire Fighters

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