Jurors convicted a Denver-area police officer Thursday and acquitted another of charges in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man whose name became a rallying cry in protests over racial injustice in policing.
Aurora police officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. The 12-person jury found officer Jason Rosenblatt not guilty on all charges. Roedema faces up to 3 years in prison on the more serious homicide charge, with sentencing to occur at a later date.
McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, listened to the verdict from the front row, where Attorney General Phil Weiser had his hand on her shoulder. She held her right hand high in a raised fist as she left the courtroom.
McClain died after being put in a neck hold by a third officer and pinned to the ground, then injected by paramedics with an overdose of ketamine.
Roedema and Rosenblatt were charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault — all felonies. Roedema and another officer who wasn’t charged held down McClain while paramedics administered the ketamine. Rosenblatt’s attorney had pointed out during the trial that he was not near McClain at that point in the confrontation.
The case initially did not receive widespread attention, but protests over the killing of George Floyd the following year sparked outrage over McClain’s death. His pleading words captured on body camera footage, “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” struck a chord.
A local prosecutor in 2019 decided against criminal charges because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how the 23-year-old massage therapist died. But Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office to take another look at the case in 2020, and the officers and paramedics were indicted in 2021 by a grand jury.
The killings of McClain, Floyd and others triggered a wave of legislation that put limits on the use of neck holds in more than two dozen states. Colorado now tells paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having a controversial condition known as excited delirium, which has symptoms including increased strength that has been associated with racial bias against Black men.
Roedema and Rosenblatt did not testify in their defense at trial. Their attorneys blamed McClain’s death on the paramedics for injecting him with ketamine, which doctors said is what ultimately killed him.
However, prosecutors argued that the officers’ restraint of McClain contributed. Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber told jurors that Roedema and Rosenblatt also encouraged the paramedics to give McClain ketamine by describing him as having symptoms of excited delirium that they had learned about in training. But he said the officers did not tell them anything about McClain’s complaints that he could not breathe, something prosecutors said happened six times.
Sheneen McClain sat with attorneys for the state in the front row of the courtroom during the trial, part of her quest to remind the mostly white jury that her son was a real person. She watched the encounter being played over and over again along with graphic photos from his autopsy.
During testimony that stretched over three weeks, witnesses were limited to offering what they “perceived” someone to be doing or saying in the video. The video clips did not always provide a complete picture of what was happening, but Judge Mark Warner said the jurors were the only ones who could decide what they meant, just like any other piece of evidence.
Despite the emotional weight of McClain’s last words captured on body camera and a story about him playing the violin in an animal shelter, the trial did not include much testimony about him or his life.
A co-worker at a massage studio testified briefly about how he used to bike or run miles to work in an affluent suburb and then also run on lunch breaks. A photograph of a smiling McClain she took shortly before his death was shown to jurors during closing arguments.
McClain was stopped Aug. 24, 2019, while walking home from a convenience store on a summer night, listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face. A 911 caller reported him as suspicious, and the police stop quickly became physical after McClain, seemingly caught off guard, asked to be left alone. He had not been accused of committing any crime.
The encounter quickly escalated, with Officers Nathan Woodyard, Roedema and Rosenblatt taking McClain to the ground, and Woodyard putting him in a neck hold and pressing against his carotid artery, temporarily rendering him unconscious. The officers told investigators they took McClain down after hearing Roedema say, “He grabbed your gun dude.” He later said Rosenblatt’s gun was the target.
The initial statement was heard on the body camera footage but exactly what happened is difficult to see. The prosecution urged jurors to be skeptical, saying Rosenblatt said he could not feel anyone reaching for his gun.
But one of Roedema’s defense lawyers, Don Sisson, pointed out that McClain said “I intend to take my power back,” which he argued showed intent. The officers had to act in the moment to protect themselves, according to Sisson.
“They didn’t get to watch the video over and over and over for three weeks before they get to act,” he said.
Paramedics injected McClain with ketamine as Roedema and another officer who was not charged held him on the ground. He went into cardiac arrest en route to the hospital and died three days later.
After the grand jury was convened to re-investigate the case, the doctor who performed McClain’s autopsy, Stephen Cina, revised his opinion and concluded that he died of complications from the ketamine while also noting that that occurred after the forcible restraint. However, Cina still was not able to say if the death was a homicide or an accident or if the officers’ actions contributed to McClain’s death.
Dr. Roger Mitchell, another forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy and searched for clues about what happened in the body camera video, found their actions did play a role. He labeled the death a homicide.
The neck hold lowered the oxygen level in McClain’s brain while his exertions during the altercation increased the amount of acid in his body, Mitchell, a Howard University medical school professor and former chief medical officer for Washington, D.C., said during testimony.
The lack of oxygen and increased acid created a “vicious cycle,” he added, causing McClain to vomit and then inhale the vomit into his lungs so it became hard for him to breathe.
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