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Paramedics were convicted in Elijah McClain’s death. That could make other first responders pause

Dec 22, 2023, 4:54 PM | Updated: Dec 23, 2023, 11:18 am

Paramedics Jeremy Cooper, far left, and Peter Cichuniec, far right, enter the Adams County, Colo., ...

Paramedics Jeremy Cooper, far left, and Peter Cichuniec, far right, enter the Adams County, Colo., Justice Center, Friday, Dec. 22, 2023, in Brighton, Colo. A Colorado prosecutor says the two paramedics failed to properly care for Elijah McClain when they overdosed the Black man with a sedative that he didn’t need. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, died after being stopped and forcibly restrained by police officers and then injected with ketamine in 2019 in the Denver suburb of Aurora. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — Two Denver-area paramedics were convicted Friday for giving a fatal overdose of the sedative ketamine to Elijah McClain in 2019 — a jury verdict that experts said could have a chilling effect on first responders around the country.

The case involving the 23-year-old Black man’s death was the first among several recent criminal prosecutions against medical first responders to reach trial, potentially setting the bar for prosecutors for future cases.

It also was the last of three trials against police and paramedics charged in the death of McClain, whom officers stopped following a suspicious person complaint. He was injected with the sedative after being forcibly restrained. The case received little attention until protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

An Aurora police officer was convicted of homicide and third degree assault earlier this year, while two other officers were acquitted.

The jury on Friday found Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec guilty of criminally negligent homicide following a weekslong trial in state district court. They could face years in prison at sentencing.

The jury also found Cichuniec guilty on one of two second-degree assault charges, which brings the possibility of an enhanced prison sentence and required that he be taken into immediate custody. Cooper was found not guilty on the assault charges and was not taken into custody.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, raised her fist in the air following the verdict. “We did it! We did it! We did it!” she said as she walked away from the courthouse.

Cichuniec’s wife had her head bowed as deputies handcuffed him. Cooper’s wife sobbed alongside her.

Neither the paramedics nor their attorneys spoke outside court. They did not immediately respond to emails and telephone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The outcome could set a precedent for how emergency personnel respond to situations with people in police custody, said University of Miami criminologist Alex Piquero.

“Imagine if you’re a paramedic,” Piquero said. “They could be hesitant. They could say, ‘I’m not going to do anything’ or ‘I’m going to do less. I don’t want to be found guilty.'”

The International Association of Fire Fighters said in a statement that in pursuing the charges, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser had criminalized split-second medical decisions and set “a dangerous, chilling precedent for pre-hospital care.”

Weiser, who convened the grand jury that indicted the first responders, said he was satisfied with the verdict.

“We remain confident that bringing these cases forward was the right thing to do for justice for Elijah McClain and for healing in the Aurora community,” he said outside court.

The city of Aurora said Friday night that the two paramedics were fired following their convictions.

The verdict was announced after two days of deliberations. When jurors told the judge Friday afternoon they were stuck on one of the charges, the judge told them to keep trying to reach a verdict.

Police stopped McClain while he was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, following a suspicious person complaint. After an officer said McClain reached for an officer’s gun — a claim disputed by prosecutors — another officer put him in a neck hold that rendered him temporarily unconscious. Officers also pinned down McClain before Cooper injected him with an overdose of ketamine. Cichuniec was the senior officer and said it was his decision to use ketamine.

Prosecutors said the paramedics did not conduct basic medical checks of McClain, such as taking his pulse, before giving him the ketamine. The dose was too much for someone of his size — 140 pounds (64 kilograms), experts testified. Prosecutors say they also did not monitor McClain immediately after giving him the sedative but instead left him lying on the ground, making it harder to breathe.

McClain’s pleading words captured on police body camera video, “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” struck a chord with protesters and people around the country.

In a statement released prior to the verdict, McClain’s mother said that everyone present during the police stop of her son displayed a lack of humanity.

“They can not blame their job training for their indifference to evil or their participation in an evil action,” McClain wrote. “That is completely on them. May all of their souls rot in hell when their time comes.”

Defense attorneys argued that the paramedics followed their training in giving ketamine to McClain after diagnosing him with “ excited delirium,” a disputed condition some say is unscientific and has been used to justify excessive force.

The verdicts came after a jury in Washington state cleared three police officers of all criminal charges on Thursday in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shocked, beaten and restrained face-down on a Tacoma sidewalk as he pleaded for breath.

In the Colorado case, the prosecution said Cooper lied to investigators to try to cover up his actions, telling detectives that McClain was actively resisting when he decided to inject McClain with ketamine, even though the body camera showed McClain lying on the ground unconscious. It also disputed Cooper’s claim that McClain tried to get away from police holding him down — and that he took McClain’s pulse as he bent down to give him the shot of ketamine, which others testified they did not see.

“He’s trying to cover up the recklessness of his conduct,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber told jurors in closing statements.

Cichuniec, who testified along with Cooper this week, said paramedics were trained that they had to work quickly to treat excited delirium with ketamine and said they were told numerous times that it was a safe, effective drug and were not warned about the possibility of it killing anyone.

Colorado now tells paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having the controversial condition, which has symptoms including increased strength and has been associated with racial bias against Black men.

When the police stopped McClain, a massage therapist, he was listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face because he had a blood circulation disorder. The police stop quickly became physical after McClain, seemingly caught off guard, asked to be left alone. He had not been accused of committing any crime.

The case’s prominence means the specter of criminal charges and accompanying lawsuits over emergency care will be a concern for paramedics going forward, said Arizona State University law professor James G. Hodge, Jr.

It could prompt them to better document what police tell them about people needing treatment and to ask doctors to sign off before paramedics use life-saving but potentially harmful treatments on patients, he said.

“The national coverage of the cases against these paramedics unquestionably influences practices in real-time,” Hodge said.

___

Brown reported from Billings, Montana.

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Paramedics were convicted in Elijah McClain’s death. That could make other first responders pause