By Andi Babineau, Christina Maxouris and Eric Levenson, CNN
(CNN) — Prosecution and defense attorneys delivered opening statements Wednesday in the trial of two Aurora, Colorado, police officers who arrested Elijah McClain, an unarmed 23-year-old Black man who died after their encounter more than four years ago.
“You will hear no evidence in this case, none, that Elijah McClain did something criminal that night (or) that he was about to engage in criminal activity. He was just walking home,” prosecutor Jonathan Bunge said. “The defendants grabbed Elijah McClain, merely because he looked, to them, suspicious.”
“In the 18 minutes and two seconds that followed … Elijah, a 23-year old healthy man, young man, just walking down the street, became a casualty of the very people who had sworn to protect him,” Bunge said.
Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt have pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault causing serious bodily injury in connection with McClain’s death. Rosenblatt was fired by the police department in 2020 and Roedema remains suspended.
The case stems from the arrest of McClain on August 24, 2019, when officers responded to a call about a “suspicious person” wearing a ski mask, according to the indictment. The officers confronted McClain, a massage therapist, musician and animal lover, who was walking home from a convenience store carrying a plastic bag with iced tea.
In a disturbing interaction captured on body-camera footage, police wrestled McClain to the ground and placed him in a carotid hold, and paramedics later injected him with the powerful sedative ketamine. He suffered a heart attack on the way to the hospital and was pronounced dead three days later.
The prosecutor began his opening statement after Judge Mark Warner seated the jury of 12 primary jurors and two alternates. Court adjourned for the day after Bunge and defense attorneys for both officers delivered opening statements.
McClain pleaded and said he couldn’t breathe, prosecutor says
Bunge took jurors through the night of McClain’s interaction with police, narrating video footage from that night. He said three officers were dispatched after a 911 call from a 17-year-old boy who saw McClain walking home from a convenience store and thought it was strange he was wearing a coat and a nylon runner’s mask – something McClain did often because he was frequently cold and liked running, according to Bunge.
“The problem in this case, is not whether or not the police should” have responded to the call, Bunge said. “The issue is what happened when they got there.”
Bunge alleged that, during their interaction, Roedema, Rosenblatt and a third officer used excessive force without any proof McClain committed any criminal acts – and despite his repeated attempts to tell them who he was – and administered two carotid control holds to subdue him.
Both the officers on trial had recently been trained on the carotid hold, the prosecutor said.
Per department policy, he said, officers should not perform the hold more than once on a person, because of the dangers. Police officers are also supposed to follow certain procedures after carotid holds, including to check vital signs, which both officers failed to do, the prosecutor alleged.
“None of that happened,” he added, saying that McClain spent 15 minutes afterward handcuffed on the ground, repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe, please help me.”
“Seven times, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Bunge said, adding that during that time, McClain was throwing up.
When paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec – who will face a joint trial over their involvement in November – arrived, the officers failed to tell them McClain’s vital signs had not been checked and that he had complained multiple times he couldn’t breathe.
Instead, they told paramedics he continued to resist and had “crazy strength,” Bunge said.
They injected McClain with a dose based on an estimate that he was 200 pounds; he in fact weighed 143 pounds, according to the indictment.
“By the time he was placed on the gurney, Mr. McClain appeared unconscious, had no muscle tone, was limp, and had visible vomit coming from his nose and mouth,” the indictment says. “(Officer) Roedema said he heard Mr. McClain snoring, which can be a sign of a ketamine overdose.”
By that time, Bunge said Wednesday, McClain was drifting “further and further towards death.”
Defense argued officers followed training, did not cause death
Defense attorneys for both officers offered a different narrative of the encounter in their opening statements, focusing on the physical resistance the officers alleged they experienced from McClain and their roles that night.
Roedema’s attorney, Reid Elkus, told jurors the officers on trial were on the scene as “cover officers,” whose main duty was to protect the primary officer, who was the other officer at the scene.
McClain resisted the officers, Elkus said, and Roedema saw McClain attempt to grab one of the officers’ guns, prompting them to put him to the ground. The prosecution has disputed that McClain reached for a gun, and has said there is no evidence he did so.
“The evidence of the gun grab is Mr. Roedema’s statement as it is occurring. He is exclaiming it as it is happening,” Elkus said. “What motive does Mr. Roedema have to lie about that?”
The carotid hold, Elkus said, was the only time the officers were able to get McClain to stop resisting. After he was handcuffed, McClain remained responsive, the attorney said.
Among the statements he made, were “my name is Elijah McClain,” “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” and “I’m so sorry,” according to the attorney.
Elkus alleged the officers followed their training by calling paramedics and a supervisor and placed McClain on his side so he could breathe. “They complied with their policy,” he said.
Instead, the attorney pointed to the paramedics’ decision to inject McClain with ketamine as the main reason leading to his death.
Defense attorney Harvey Steinberg, who represents Rosenblatt, told jurors Rosenblatt briefly attempted a carotid hold after he heard his colleague say McClain was reaching for a gun as they struggled with him.
“They’re not trying to physically harm him, they’re not trying to beat him, they’re not trying to strike him,” Steinberg told the jury, saying officers experienced continued physical resistance from McClain.
The attorney argued there was no evidence their actions led to McClain’s death.
An amended report on McClain’s cause of death could not determine whether the carotid hold contributed to his death, Steinberg said.
The report also noted “no findings in the neck indicative of traumatic asphyxiation,” and the pathologist stated, “I have seen no evidence that injuries inflicted by the police contributed to death,” the attorney added.
What we know about the arrest
After his interaction with police and paramedics, McClain never regained consciousness and was declared brain-dead on August 27, the indictment states. His life support was then removed and he became an organ donor.
Shortly afterward, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to bring criminal charges because he said prosecutors lacked evidence to prove the officers caused McClain’s death or that their force was unjustified. The original autopsy report listed the cause of McClain’s death as “undetermined.”
However, McClain’s death was one of several cases that received renewed scrutiny following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring of 2020, sparking massive protests across the country. In June 2020, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced a reexamination of McClain’s death, and appointed state Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor.
In 2021, a grand jury indicted three police officers and two paramedics involved in the McClain case. They face 32 counts in total, including reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault. All five have pleaded not guilty.
They will be tried in three separate cases, with the trial of Roedema and Rosenblatt coming first. The third officer, Nathan Woodyard, is scheduled to be tried individually in mid-October.
The cause of death was also updated to “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint,” Adams County Chief Coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan announced last September.
The coroner’s office received body camera footage, witness statements and additional records that were part of a grand jury investigation and not available before the autopsy was performed, pathologist Dr. Stephen Cina wrote in the amended autopsy report.
In 2021, the city settled a civil rights lawsuit with the McClain family for $15 million, and the Aurora police and fire departments agreed to a consent decree to address a pattern of racial bias found by a state investigation.
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