A group of police officers and paramedics are scheduled Friday to enter pleas in Colorado court to charges in the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was put in a chokehold and injected with a powerful sedative two years ago in suburban Denver.
They were indicted by a state grand jury on manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges in 2021.
The 23-year-old’s death in 2019 did not receive much national media attention but gained more widespread awareness during the massive Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 against racial injustice and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
McClain died after being stopped while walking in the Denver suburb of Aurora because a 911 caller reported a man who seemed “sketchy”. An amended autopsy report released last year concluded that he would have most likely survived but for the administration of a large dose of ketamine by first responders seeking subdue him.
The case in court on Friday involves officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt, and the fire department’s Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec.
A grand jury indicted them after Colorado’s Democratic governor Jared Polis ordered state attorney general Phil Weiser to open a criminal investigation into the case.
In 2021, Auroro settled a civil rights lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents, for $15m.
McClain, a massage therapist, had not been accused of committing any crime and was not carrying any kind of weapon.
According to the indictment, he was walking home from a grocery store in 2019 after buying iced tea wearing a ski mask, months before the coronavirus pandemic began and made face coverings common.
The encounter quickly escalated, with McClain initially losing consciousness after a chokehold was applied by police. McClain, whom relatives say wore the mask because anemia made him cold, complained he couldn’t breathe as three officers held him handcuffed on the ground, and he vomited several times.
He sobbed, pleading: “I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me? I don’t do guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat … I am a vegetarian.”
Polis ordered the state investigation after a former district attorney said he could not file charges because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died.
His death helped prompt a sweeping police accountability law in Colorado, a ban on chokeholds and restrictions on the use of the sedative ketamine.
In the summer of 2020, police dressed in riot gear used pepper spray to disperse a largely peaceful gathering of thousands at a vigil in Aurora protesting McClain’s death, including local musicians playing violins to honor his love of the instrument, which he played.