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Closing arguments conclude in trial of paramedics in 2019 Elijah McClain death

By Emma Tucker, CNN

(CNN) — Closing arguments concluded Wednesday in the trial against two Aurora, Colorado, paramedics charged in the wrongful death of Elijah McClain in August 2019.

Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec pleaded not guilty to felony charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, after a 500-milligram dose of ketamine they administered to McClain caused his death, according to an amended autopsy report released in 2022.

Jury deliberations will begin on Thursday morning.

Both paramedics testified Monday that they believed McClain was experiencing “excited delirium” during his confrontation with Aurora police officers, and their treatment protocol was to administer a ketamine dose they believed was safe and would not kill a person.

“During our training, we were told numerous times that this is a safe, effective drug,” Cichuniec told the court. “That is the only drug we can carry that can stop what is going on and calm him down so we can control his airway, we can control him and the safety of him, get him to the hospital as quick as we can.”

During closing arguments on Wednesday, Colorado Solicitor General Shannon Stevenson said the paramedics “didn’t take any accountability for any single one of their actions” while testifying at their trial.

“The defendants here, they both did all of these things together,” Stevenson said. “You heard them say, you heard their experts say: they were acting as a team. They both decided to give the ketamine. They both decided to give 500 [milligrams]. They both stood there while Elijah got worse and worse and did nothing. They are both responsible.”

Attorneys for Cooper and Cichuniec argued in their closing statements McClain was exhibiting signs of excited delirium and were following their training when they decided to give him ketamine.

Cooper’s defense attorney, Michael Pellow, repeated Cooper’s statement that he “tried to compare” McClain’s weight to his own, estimating he weighed about 50 pounds less. Pellow told the court Cooper was attempting to make a judgement to estimate his weight “without any instruction on how to do it with somebody on the ground.”

“They were following their training. They were following their protocols. They were instructed about the wide margin of safety. Ketamine is safe. Excited delirium is dangerous. That’s what it comes down to that they were trained on,” Pellow said.

This is the third and final trial stemming from McClain’s death after three Aurora police officers were also tried for their involvement in the incident. Officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and assault and subsequently fired by the department. Officer Jason Rosenblatt, who had been fired in 2020, was tried alongside Roedema and acquitted of all charges. Officer Nathan Woodyard was tried separately and also acquitted of all charges.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, told CNN affiliate KUSA after the acquittal of Woodyard she doesn’t have faith in the justice system.

“It lets us down, not just people of color, it lets down everybody,” she told KUSA. “They don’t do the right thing, they always do the bare minimum.”

The charges against the five first responders stem from the arrest of McClain, 23, 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, wrestled him to the ground and placed him into a carotid hold as he was walking home from a convenience store carrying a plastic bag with iced tea.

The two paramedics standing trial for the death of someone they treated in police custody is unparalleled, CNN previously reported. Paramedics are typically local government agents protected by statutory immunities where injury and death can occur even when they abide by their medical training.

It is rare for police officers to face criminal charges for on-duty encounters due to laws protecting their right to use force, but it is exceedingly so for paramedics and emergency medical technicians to face any consequences – professional, civil or criminal – for their actions on the job.

Cooper and Cichuniec were suspended from their roles in September 2021 after being criminally charged, a spokesperson for the Health Facilities and Emergency Medical Services Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told CNN. The department will make a decision to remove their certifications depending on the outcome of the trial, the spokesperson said.

Paramedics agree ketamine dose was too high

Defense attorneys for the three Aurora officers at trial blamed McClain’s death on the paramedics’ decision to inject him with a dose of ketamine too large for his size. The use of ketamine by emergency responders to tranquilize people against their will has raised controversy and triggered investigations in multiple states.

During testimony, Cichuniec and Cooper said they estimated McClain to have weighed 200 pounds and gave a 500-milligram dose to the then 23-year-old man, who actually weighed only 143 pounds.

An amended autopsy report publicly released in 2022 listed “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint” as the cause of McClain’s death. The manner of death was undetermined.

During questioning from his attorney, Cichuniec testified that when he arrived on the scene in 2019, he saw three Aurora police officers struggling on the ground with McClain. At one-point, Cichuniec said one of the officers picked McClain up and body-slammed him to the ground.

“I saw three officers struggling more than I’ve seen on the thousands of combative calls that I’ve been on before,” said Cichuniec. He testified that he believed McClain was experiencing “excited delirium” and that the only treatment was to administer ketamine.

“He was very sweaty, he was breathing very fast,” Cichuniec told the court. “I couldn’t hear any clear language from him. He just seemed a little disoriented to me.”

Cichuniec said Cooper eventually administered 500 milligrams of Ketamine to McClain’s right deltoid.

During cross examination by prosecutors, Cichuniec agreed the correct dosage for his estimation of McClain’s bodyweight should have been 425 milligrams, but that he rounded up to 500 milligrams because McClain was exhibiting extra agitation. Prosecutors then showed the court that there was nothing in Cichuniec’s previous ketamine training that stated increased dosage should be administered because of higher levels of agitation in a patient.

Cichuniec also agreed with prosecutors that the 500 milligram ketamine dose was fifty-percent more than the dose recommended for McClain’s actual weight.

Cooper echoed Cichuniec’s earlier testimony while he was on the stand, saying they believed the only treatment protocol was to administer the ketamine dose they were told was safe and would not kill a person.

In its cross-examination, the prosecution showed Cooper his previous ketamine training included warnings of increased side effects and risks, including respiratory depression, if an overdose of ketamine was given.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber also questioned Cooper about why, as heard on bodycam video of the incident shown in court, he never asked questions to McClain about his name, his weight, or his condition.

Cooper said he didn’t talk to McClain in an attempt to deescalate the situation and that McClain was speaking incoherently. He did not recall McClain saying, “please help me,” while Cooper was next to him, according to his testimony.

“I was trying to administer care, to take care of Elijah, to get him to the hospital safely,” Cooper told the jury at the end of his testimony.

Paramedics ‘didn’t even try,’ prosecution says

During closing arguments, Cichuniec’s attorney David Goddard said there’s a “broad safety profile even in dosing” ketamine.

“They have not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that these gentlemen are responsible for the death of Elijah McClain; or that these gentlemen did anything to assault or give him ketamine for any other purpose than trying to treat him with a reason to believe was excited delirium,” Goddard told the court.

In the prosecution’s closing arguments, Slothouber said the paramedics treated McClain like he was a “problem” rather than their patient, saying it was “the worst possible care” McClain could have been given.

“This is reckless. It’s not intending to kill. It’s intending to cause pain – bodily injury and stupor. It’s not intending to kill, but it is wildly, insanely reckless. It’s the medical equivalent of putting on a blindfold, jumping in a car and hitting the gas as hard as you can,” Slothouber said.

Slothouber said the incident would have resulted in the same way if the paramedics arrived at the scene, gave McClain a 500 mg dose of ketamine and went back into their ambulance.

“The key to this case is that’s how bad it was. That the defendants didn’t even try. That when Elijah McClain pleaded, ‘please help me,’ they left him there. They overdosed him on ketamine, they left him there again and it killed him. And that’s why they’re guilty,” Slothouber said.

CNN’s Jeremy Harlan contributed to this report.

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