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2 paramedics found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in Elijah McClain’s death

By Emma Tucker and Jeremy Harlan, CNN

(CNN) — Two paramedics were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide Friday in the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was subdued by police and injected with ketamine in Aurora, Colorado, in August 2019.

Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec had pleaded not guilty to the felony charges.

Cichuniec was also found guilty of a second-degree unlawful administration of drugs assault charge, and not guilty of second-degree assault resulting in bodily injury. He was immediately taken into custody. Cooper was acquitted on those charges.

Prosecutors had argued the paramedics acted recklessly in administering a large amount of the powerful sedative ketamine to McClain, who had been violently subdued by police, despite not speaking with him or checking his vital signs.

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

However, the paramedics testified during their trial they were following their training for treating patients experiencing “excited delirium,” a controversial diagnosis describing extreme agitation generally applied to people being subdued by police.

“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.”

The use of ketamine by emergency responders to tranquilize people against their will has raised controversy and triggered investigations in multiple states.

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

‘We do not know justice’ until sentencing

MiDian Holmes, an activist and McClain family spokesperson, said it’s too soon to say justice has been served.

“We do not know justice until we see sentencing,” Holmes told reporters Friday.

“The responsibility that the judge has is to look at the law and ensure that the sentencing matches the punishment.”

Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Alec Oughton, in a statement posted on Facebook, offered his “deepest condolences” to McClain’s family.

“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,” Oughton said.

“The community has asked for true pathways to accountability, transparency and justice to ensure incidents like this don’t happen in the future,” he added, noting that the department has implemented numerous changes to policy, protocols and training since McClain’s death.

Three Aurora police officers who subdued McClain have also faced trial for their involvement in the incident. Officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and assault and subsequently fired by the department, while officers Jason Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard were acquitted of all charges.

The charges against the five first responders stem 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, 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.

McClain’s death was one of several cases to receive renewed scrutiny following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring of 2020, sparking massive protests across the country.

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 spokesperson said the department would decide whether to remove their certifications after the trial is concluded.

In a statement after the verdict, Attorney General Phil Weiser said in part: “We knew these cases would be difficult to prosecute,” referring to the charges against the five first responders.

“We are satisfied with today’s verdicts, and we are confident that bringing these cases to trial was the right thing to do for justice, for Elijah McClain, and for healing in the Aurora community,” Weiser said.

“We must continue our work to improve policing and emergency response and build trust between law enforcement, first responders, and the people they are sworn to protect,” he continued.

Paramedics said at trial 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.

During testimony, Cichuniec and Cooper said they estimated McClain to have weighed 200 pounds and gave a 500-milligram dose to McClain, who weighed only 143 pounds. Cichuniec testified the only treatment was to administer ketamine to McClain, who he said was experiencing “excited delirium.”

Cichuniec said Cooper eventually administered the ketamine to McClain’s right deltoid.

During cross-examination by prosecutors, Cichuniec agreed the correct dosage for his estimation of McClain’s body weight should have been 425 milligrams, but he rounded up to 500 milligrams because McClain was exhibiting extra agitation.

Prosecutors then showed the court there was nothing in Cichuniec’s previous ketamine training stating increased dosage should be administered because of higher levels of agitation in a patient. In its cross-examination, prosecutors also 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 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.

Prosecutors called their last witness to the stand last week, Dr. Roger Mitchell, a forensic pathologist who reviewed footage from the incident. He testified McClain showed signs of having a deficiency in oxygen, or hypoxia, but there was “no evidence of excited delirium.” Mitchell said McClain needed oxygen and fluids, as well as a physical examination before he was injected with ketamine.

“If that was done, then I don’t believe that the ketamine would have been given,” Mitchell testified.

Paramedics treated McClain like a ‘problem,’ prosecution said

During closing arguments, Cichuniec’s attorney David Goddard said prosecutors had “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.”

The prosecution, however, argued 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 intending to cause pain – bodily injury and stupor,” Slothouber said. “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 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,” Slothouber continued. “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.”

CNN’s Eric Levenson and Raja Razek contributed to this report.

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