DENVER — The trial of two men charged in the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was placed in a chokehold by police in Aurora, Colorado, and injected with a powerful sedative, is expected to begin this week.
The joint trial is the first of three scheduled this year involving the 23-year-old massage therapist’s encounter with police and first responders on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, after he bought iced tea from a corner store.
McClain’s death prompted months of protests demanding justice and police reform that were a precursor to national demonstrations held the following year in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The Colorado attorney general’s office has charged two police officers, a former officer and two paramedics in the Denver suburb of Aurora with one count each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, as well as other charges contained in a 32-count indictment handed down by a grand jury in 2021.
They have all pleaded not guilty.
Opening arguments in the trial of Aurora Police Officer Randy Roedema and a former officer, Jason Rosenblatt, are set to start in Adams County District Court in Brighton, Colorado, when jury selection is completed.
Rosenblatt was fired in 2020 after texting “ha ha” in response to a picture sent to him by other officers, one of whom appeared to be administering a chokehold near a memorial for McClain.
Roedema has been placed on administrative leave without pay.
Lawyers for Roedema and Rosenblatt could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec are scheduled to be tried later this year after the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday denied their petitions to have their cases dismissed. They have been placed on administrative leave without pay.
Officer Nathan Woodyard, who placed McClain in the chokehold that forced him into unconsciousness, will be tried this year but a date has not been set, prosecutors said. He was fired after the incident.
The encounter began when three Aurora police officers stopped McClain as he was walking home from the store. The police were responding to a report of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.
McClain was wearing a mask that night, which he often did because of a blood condition that made him feel cold, according to his family.
The officers questioned him and then grabbed him when one of the officers thought McClain was reaching for a holstered gun.
Authorities said officers applied a carotid control hold on McClain, a type of chokehold meant to restrict blood to the brain.
In video obtained by NBC News, McClain could be heard telling police, “I can’t breathe correctly.”
Paramedics called to the scene injected McClain with ketamine to sedate him.
About seven minutes later, McClain did not have a pulse and went into cardiac arrest inside an ambulance, according to a report released later that year by the district attorney’s office.
Medics revived McClain, but he was declared brain dead less than a week later and taken off life support.
An amended autopsy report released almost a year ago said McClain died of complications from ketamine administration while being forcibly restrained.
“I believe this tragic fatality is most likely the result of ketamine toxicity,” the report said, adding McClain received a higher dosage of the sedative than he should have. “Simply put, this dosage of ketamine was too much for this individual and it resulted in an overdose.”
The original autopsy report in 2019 said McClain’s cause of death could not be determined, but new information that emerged during the eight-month grand jury investigation prompted the state attorney general’s office to order a second autopsy.
Aurora police banned chokeholds in 2020 in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder.
An independent probe commissioned by the city of Aurora released in 2021 concluded that police had no justification to stop or use force to detain McClain, and responding paramedics sedated him with ketamine “without conducting anything more than a brief visual observation.”
The 5-foot-7, 140-pound McClain was given an amount of ketamine appropriate for a 190-pound man, according to the panel’s findings.
The report suggested a change in policy for paramedics responding to the scene with police, and said they should not act as an “arm” of the department.