Two Colorado paramedics were convicted of manslaughter in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young, unarmed black man whose case drew national attention and forced public safety reforms in the city where he lived and died .
But the predominantly white jury was divided on two assault charges against the paramedics, Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, after two days of deliberations. They convicted Mr. Cichuniec of one of the assault charges, second-degree assault by unlawful administration of drugs, but cleared Mr. Cooper of both assault charges.
The men had injected Mr McClain with the powerful sedative ketamine while he was in police custody in Aurora, Colorado, which doctors said left him close to death. He died days later in hospital.
The trial, which lasted almost four weeks, was a rare prosecution of paramedics and raised questions about the role medical staff played in encounters with police and whether they could be held criminally responsible for their actions.
“The truth is now real and available,” said MiDian Holmes, an Aurora activist and friend of Mr. McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain. She spoke on behalf of Ms. McClain, who was held on the shoulder of Omar Montgomery, president of the city’s NAACP chapter. “We love you Elijah McClain.”
It was also the third and final trial in Mr. McClain’s death; three police officers were prosecuted in two previous trials. One officer was convicted of manslaughter and third-degree assault and will be sentenced Jan. 5. Two other officers were acquitted and one returned to the Aurora Police Department.
Mr. McClain’s family and supporters, as well as activists who pushed to hold the Police Department accountable for his death, said the verdict provided some measure of justice.
Firefighters and the families of the defendants packed the courtroom in a show of support for the paramedics. There were gasps and shouts as Mr Cichuniec, convicted of two charges, was taken into custody. Mr Cooper was allowed to remain out of prison on bail.
The paramedic’s trial marks the latest chapter in a four-year saga that has shaken the city of Aurora and its troubled police force. Mr. McClain’s name and face became among the most recognizable during the social justice protests of 2020. Local and state investigations followed, and eventually even policy changes in the police and fire departments.
The result is a partial victory for prosecutors, who have now secured convictions against three of the five men tried over Mr. McClain’s death.
“We knew these cases would be difficult to prosecute. “We are pleased with today’s verdict and remain confident that pursuing these cases was the right thing to do,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said after the verdict.
But the case shocked the emergency room health workers who had followed him.
“It seems like they put the blame on the paramedics,” said Douglas M. Wolfberg, a former emergency medical technician and founding partner of a Pennsylvania law firm that represents emergency medical services organizations.
Mr Wolfberg said the case was the only one he was aware of in which paramedics faced such serious charges related to patient care. The verdict, he said, “would send ripples through the EMS community. “This is a new calculation.”
Aurora Fire Chief Alec Oughton said he was “deeply concerned and disappointed” by the convictions and disheartened that the paramedics had “received criminal punishment for following their training and the protocols in place in that moment and for making discretionary decisions while making split decisions.” “second action in a dynamic environment.”
During the trials, Mr McClain’s mother insisted that all five officers and paramedics must be held accountable. “None of them did their jobs that night as they should have done,” she told the New York Times before the first police trial ended in a split verdict, adding: “They worked as a team to kill my son.” .
On Friday, his supporters and activists took comfort from changes in policing.
“The death of Elijah McClain, unfortunately, is the reason why there is great reform in the Police Department,” said Mr. Montgomery, of the Aurora NAACP. “We hope that his legacy is that other blacks, other people of color, have a public safety system they can believe in.”
Mr. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, when he was confronted by police officers responding to a 911 call describing Mr. McClain as “sketchy.”
Minutes after the arrest, police forcibly arrested Mr. McClain and placed him in a carotid chokehold, a neck restraint that has since been banned in Aurora and other police departments. Paramedics then administered a dose of ketamine intended for an approximately 200-pound person; Mr. McClain weighed 143 pounds, the indictment says. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to hospital.
During the paramedic’s trial, prosecutors argued that medical staff had breached their protocols and training as Mr McClain’s condition rapidly worsened. In testimony, paramedics said they trusted police that he was in charge of the scene and that they took actions they believed would help Mr. McClain.
Prosecutors argued that paramedics did not speak to Mr. McClain, touch him or measure his vitals before diagnosing him with excited delirium, a controversial condition characterized by exceptional physical strength and agitation.
“It would have been better if they had never come,” said Shannon Stevenson, a prosecutor at the trial, referring to the paramedics.
Lawyers for Mr. Cichuniec and Mr. Cooper said the police were responsible for Mr. McClain’s death. They said paramedics followed protocols and were trained to use ketamine as a safe treatment for excited delirium.
The defendants testified that they tried to do their jobs but were hindered by police officers who, they said, refused to relinquish control of the scene or treat Mr. McClain humanely. Mr Cooper said he saw an officer slam the handcuffed Mr McClain to the ground.
“I decided to back down,” Mr. Cooper said during his testimony, adding that backing down was his way of trying to de-escalate the situation, not an indication of patient negligence.
Mr. Cichuniec, the top-ranking paramedic that night, described a chaotic scene in which police were struggling with Mr. McClain more than he had seen in the “thousands of combative calls” he had attended.
Jason Slothouber, a prosecutor, spent much of his cross-examinations pointing out inconsistencies in the paramedics’ stories, using body camera footage and their previous statements to Aurora police detectives.
Mr. Cooper told investigators that after the injection, Mr. McClain continued to fight the officers.
But a video clip showed Mr McClain unconscious moments after the sedative was administered.
Months after Mr. McClain’s death, a local prosecutor declined to press charges against the five police officers and paramedics. But after the 2020 death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the mass protests that followed, Colorado’s attorney general opened an investigation that ultimately ended in an indictment with 32 charges.