BRIGHTON, Colo. (CN) — A three-week jury trial began Wednesday for two police officers facing charges for the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, a massage therapist who was killed in Aurora, Colorado, on his way home from purchasing iced tea.
Suspended Aurora police officers Randy Roedema and former officer Jason Rosenblatt each face charges of reckless manslaughter and second-degree assault.
McClain encountered police on Aug. 27, 2019, while walking home from purchasing iced tea at a convenience store on Colfax Avenue and Billings Street. Roedema and Rosenblatt were two of three officers who responded to a call reporting a suspicious person in the area with his description.
At the time, McClain had been dancing to music playing through his earbuds and didn’t initially hear police order him to stop.
When McClain didn’t immediately follow orders to “stop” and “relax,” bodycam footage captures police officers bringing him to the ground and engaging him in two constructive carotid holds.
On the ground, McClain told police he was an introvert and a vegetarian. “Forgive me,” McClain told the officers. “All I was trying to do was become better.”
After McClain passed out at the scene, a paramedic injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine — more than double the recommended dose for someone of his size — 143 pounds. McClain died three days later in a hospital.
“Police in our society have a unique power, but with that power also comes great responsibility,” said special assistant attorney general Jon Bunge. A former federal prosecutor, Bunge now works with the firm Quinn Emanuel and took the case pro bono.
“You will hear no evidence that Mr. McClain did anything illegal or was on his way to do anything illegal,” Bunge told the jury which consists of 12 jurors and two alternates.
Bunge played audio and video captured during the altercation. As McClain’s last words — “please help me” — rang through the courtroom, his mother Sheneen McClain sat stoically in the front row.
Defense attorney Reid Elkus, of the firm Elkus & Sisson, said both officers were following orders, and attributed McClain’s death to negligent paramedic response alone.
“The death of Elijah McClain was a tragedy, but just because a tragedy occurred does not imply criminality,” said Elkus, who represents Roedema.
Elkus emphasized McClain’s “non-compliance and resistance” to police officer orders, and described the law enforcement response as calculated and by the book.
Officer Rosenblatt is represented by attorney Harvey Steinberg who urged the jury to “be fair."
"Don’t let sympathy or politics come into it," Steinberg said.
Former Aurora police officer Nathan Woodyard and former Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec will face also manslaughter charges in separate trials.
Overseen by 17th Judicial District Judge Mark Warner, the proceedings are being held in person at the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton and broadcast on the state court livestreaming website.
Internal investigations by the Aurora Police and Fire Departments initially concluded no wrongdoing had occurred in the death of Elijah McClain. Then-Adams County District Attorney Dave Young also investigated the incident and cleared the officers.
Following the 2020 death of George Floyd, Colorado activists began chanting McClain’s name at protests, prompting a second look at the incident.
When the 17th Judicial District Attorney's office declined to press charges, the state summoned a grand jury investigation and pressed charges in September 2021. McClain’s parents sued the city of Aurora in August 2020 and settled for $15 million in November 2021.Follow @bright_lamp
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