BRIGHTON, Colorado (CN) — Aspiration of vomit, not complications from asthma, put 23-year-old Elijah McClain's life in danger, a medical investigator told a jury at the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, Colorado, on Friday during the third day of trial for two former Aurora police officers charged with manslaughter and assault for McClain's death.
The unarmed Black man had been walking home from purchasing three cans of Arizona tea in August 2019 when a passerby reported him as suspicious to 911, for wearing a ski mask and dancing down the sidewalk. Three police officers arrived within minutes, including Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, who are currently on trial.
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.
But David Beuther, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health in Denver who investigated McClain's death, told the court on Friday that McClain was already in rough shape when paramedics arrived.
The “sleeper hold,” officers used to sedate McClain caused him to throw up, filling his ski mask with vomit, which Beuther said he likely inhaled — a physiological process called aspiration. Police officers handcuffed McClain and laid him on his stomach, preventing him from coughing and clearing his airway.
Prosecutors asked Beuther to explain how he concluded McClain was suffering from breathing issues. After listening to audio captured by police-worn cameras, Beuther described McClain's strained breathing pattern, and quoted McClain’s cries for help.
“We can understand his vocalizations," Beuther explained. "I heard earlier what I interpreted as ‘I can’t breathe.' He was telling us he couldn’t breathe correctly.”
Defense attorney Harvey Steinberg, who represents Rosenblatt, asked Beuther about a line in his report stating McClain “showed no signs of severe breathing difficulties” for about 10 minutes while police waited for EMTs to arrive.
“My view of what ‘severe’ is is different from what the lay person is,” Beuther explained. “To me ‘severe’ means someone is about to die.” While McClain wasn’t necessarily on the verge of death when paramedics arrived, Beuther stressed that his health had severely deteriorated and he needed serious medical attention.
During opening arguments, defense attorneys said Officers Rosenblatt and Roedema followed orders and training that night, and that ultimately the paramedics' overdose of ketamine killed McClain.
Asked about the role of ketamine in McClain's death, Beuther offered a nuanced answer, stressing that McClain suffered from asphyxiated vomit and an inability to clear his airways, “then the ketamine killed him.”
Hearing the answer he was looking for, Steinberg smiled triumphantly.
"You said that under oath," Steinberg said. "He died of a ketamine overdose.”
Beuther replied that the reality of events was more complicated.
“I hope the jury heard the whole thing and not just that,” Beuther said. “That’s too simple."
Steinberg declined to press Beuther further on the issue and accepted 17th Judicial District Judge Mark Warner’s offer to break for the day.
“I hope you all have a good weekend and think about something else,” Judge Warner said as he dismissed the jury.
Rosenblatt and Roedema’s trial is scheduled through mid-October. Trial for former police officer Nathan Woodyard begins next month while paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec go to court in November.Follow @bright_lamp
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