Thursday, May 23, 2024

Two Colorado paramedics were convicted of criminally negligent homicide 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 mostly white jury split 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 for the 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, Colo., which doctors said left him near death. He died days later in the hospital.

The nearly four-week trial was a rare prosecution of paramedics, and raised the question of the role that medical personnel play in police encounters 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 sobbed on the shoulder of Omar Montgomery, president of the city’s N.A.A.C.P 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 earlier trials. One officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault and will be sentenced on Jan. 5. Two other officers were acquitted, and one has returned to the Aurora Police Department.

Mr. McClain’s family and supporters, as well as activists who pushed to hold the Police Department responsible for his death, said the verdict provided some measure of justice.

Firefighters and the families of the defendants packed the courtroom as a show of support for the paramedics. There were gasps and cries as Mr. Cichuniec, who was convicted on two charges, was taken into custody. Mr. Cooper was allowed to remain out of jail on bond.

The paramedic trial marks the last chapter in a four-year saga that has rocked 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 so did policy changes in the Police and Fire Departments.

The outcome is a partial victory for prosecutors, who have now won convictions against three of five of the men who were tried for Mr. McClain’s death.

“We knew that these cases were going to be difficult to prosecute. We are satisfied with today’s verdict and we remain confident that bringing these cases forward was the right thing to do,” Colorado attorney general Phil Weiser said after the verdict.

The Aurora fire chief, Alec Oughton, said he was “deeply concerned and disappointed” in the convictions and discouraged that the paramedics had “received felony punishment for following their training and protocols in place at the time and for making discretionary decisions while taking split-second action in a dynamic environment.”

Throughout the trials, Mr. McClain’s mother insisted that all five of the officers and paramedics should be held responsible. “None of them did their job that night the way they were supposed to,” she told The New York Times before the first police trial ended in a split verdict, adding, “They worked as a team to murder my son.”

On Friday, her supporters and activists took some comfort in changes in policing.

“The death of Elijah McClain, unfortunately, is the reason there is major reform in the Police Department,” said Mr. Montgomery, of the Aurora N.A.A.C.P. “Hopefully his legacy is that other Black people, other people of color, will have a public safety system that they can believe in.”

Mr. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was returning home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, when he was confronted by police officers responding to a 911 caller who described Mr. McClain as “sketchy.” Within minutes of the stop, the police forcefully arrested Mr. McClain and put him in a carotid chokehold, a neck restraint which has since been banned in Aurora and other Police Departments. The paramedics then administered a dose of ketamine meant for a person close to 200 pounds; Mr. McClain weighed 143 pounds, the indictment said. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.

During the paramedic trial, prosecutors argued that the medical personnel violated their own protocols and training as Mr. McClain’s condition rapidly deteriorated. In testimony, the paramedics, said they had deferred to the police who were in charge of the scene, and had taken actions they believed would help Mr. McClain.

Prosecutors argued that the paramedics did not speak to Mr. McClain, touch him or take his vitals before diagnosing him with excited delirium, a controversial condition characterized by exceptional physical strength and agitation.

“He would have been better off if they’d never come,” Shannon Stevenson, a state prosecutor said during the trial, referring to the paramedics.

Lawyers for Mr. Cichuniec and Mr. Cooper said the police were ultimately to blame for Mr. McClain’s death. They said the paramedics followed protocols and were trained to use ketamine as a safe treatment for excited delirium. The defendants testified that they had tried to do their jobs, but were hindered by police officers who they said refused to cede control of the scene or treat Mr. McClain humanely. Mr. Cooper said he watched one officer slam a handcuffed Mr. McClain to the ground.

“I decided to back off,” Mr. Cooper said during his testimony, adding that retreating was his way of trying to de-escalate the situation, not an indication of patient neglect.

Mr. Cichuniec, the senior-ranking paramedic that night, described a chaotic scene in which the police were struggling with Mr. McClain more than he had seen on the “thousands of combative calls” he had been on.

Jason Slothouber, a state prosecutor, spent much of the cross-examinations highlighting inconsistencies in the paramedics’ stories, using body camera footage and their earlier statements to Aurora police investigators.

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 given.

Months after Mr. McClain’s death, a local prosecutor declined to press charges against the five police officers and paramedics. But after the death of George Floyd in 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer and the mass protests that followed, the Colorado attorney general opened an investigation that eventually resulted in a 32-count indictment.

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