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Elijah McClain’s death sparked protests and led to police reforms. Now, 2 officers are on trial

By COLLEEN SLEVIN, Associated Press
Published: September 20, 2023, 10:45am

BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — The trial of two suburban Denver police officers was set to open Wednesday in the killing of Elijah McClain, a Black man put in a neck hold and injected with a powerful sedative whose 2019 death later became a rallying cry for nationwide protests and spurred police reform in Colorado.

In the first of several trials stemming from the death of McClain, lawyers for the two sides are expected to paint contrasting pictures of the deadly struggle between the officers and the 23-year-old, who was stopped by police while walking home from a convenience store listening to music on his headphones while carrying only a plastic bag and his phone.

One question jurors could be asked to decide is whether it was lawful for officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt to detain and use force against McClain, who a 911 caller had reported as being suspicious. If prosecutors can convince jurors the stop was unjustified, that would undermine any argument that McClain’s injuries were a result of the officers just doing their jobs. Jury selection was expected to wrap up Wednesday, after which prosecutors would deliver opening arguments.

Roedema and Rosenblatt are both charged with criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter and assault. The trial is expected to last about a month. They have pleaded not guilty but have never spoken publicly about the allegations against them. A third officer and two paramedics facing charges in McClain’s death are scheduled for trial later this year.

Charges were not brought for two years after McClain’s death, by which time the case had sparked outrage and a national reckoning over racial injustice in American policing after the murder of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis.

Police body camera captured McClain pleading with the officers, saying “I’m an introvert” and “I’m just different,” and telling them “I’m sorry.”

Officials eventually determined the sedative called ketamine that was administered to McClain played a key role in his death, which fueled renewed scrutiny about the use of ketamine and led Colorado’s health department to issue a rule limiting when emergency workers can use it. In 2020, neck holds by police were banned by the state’s Democratic-led Legislature.

In 2019, a local district attorney, Dave Young, had decided against prosecuting the officers largely because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died. He called McClain’s death “tragic,” but said that finding made it hard to prove that the officers’ actions caused his death.

A revised coroner’s report was issued in 2021, relying in part on information from the grand jury investigation, and found that the cause of death was complications from the powerful sedative ketamine after McClain was forcibly restrained. McClain, who weighed 140 pounds (64 kilograms), overdosed because he received a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for someone of his size, pathologist Stephen Cina found.

“I believe that Mr. McClain would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine,” Cina had said.

Cina said he couldn’t rule out whether the stress of being held down by the officers may have contributed to McClain’s death.

Police stopped McClain on Aug. 24, 2019, while he was walking down a street in the city of Aurora after a 911 caller reported a man who seemed “sketchy.” McClain, a massage therapist who was often cold, was wearing a ski mask and a jacket despite the warm weather.

Officer Nathan Woodyard, who is set to go on trial later this year, was the first to approach McClain, and was soon joined by Roedema and Rosenblatt.

McClain, using earbuds, initially kept walking. Within 10 seconds, Woodyard put his hands on McClain, turning him around. As McClain tried to escape his grip, Woodyard said, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”

The encounter with police quickly escalated, with officers taking him to the ground and putting him in a neck hold. Paramedics arrived and injected McClain with ketamine, a sedative that was legal at the time to give to people showing erratic behavior. McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. He was pronounced dead three days later.