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Colorado jury finds two paramedics guilty in the death of Elijah McClain


Last night in Colorado, two paramedics were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Elijah McClain. These convictions come after years of attempts to try to hold first responders accountable in the death of the 23-year-old Black man. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry joins us. Allison, thank you for being with us.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And please remind us the circumstances under which Elijah McClain died.

SHERRY: Yeah. He was walking home from a convenience store in a Denver suburb of Aurora in 2019 when someone called and reported that he was acting strangely. Police violently detained him. They called paramedics, and soon he was dead. Initially, local prosecutors declined to charge the three police officers and two paramedics who were involved. But a year later, when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Colorado Governor Democrat Jared Polis reopened the case and assigned a special prosecutor. The police officers were tried in two separate trials this fall and then the paramedics these past several weeks. So their convictions now wrap up all the prosecutions in this case.

SIMON: The paramedics said Elijah McClain was in what they called a state of, quote, "excited delirium."

SHERRY: Yeah, a diagnosis that's since been discredited by medical professionals. It was mostly a law enforcement definition describing someone who was possibly overdosing, acting out of their mind, sometimes having superhuman strength. So the paramedics gave McClain a dose of the sedative ketamine, which the coroner says was the main contributor to his death in the hospital several days later. And again, McClain wasn't doing anything wrong or suspected of committing any crime at the time the police detained him.

SIMON: Why were the paramedics convicted of criminally negligent homicide as opposed to medical malpractice?

SHERRY: Yeah. It's a good question. You know, it's because of that autopsy I mentioned. You know, this case in some ways was straightforward. Body-worn camera footage shows the paramedics doing almost nothing to help McClain from the moment they get on the scene to the six minutes later, when they give him an overdose of ketamine for his body weight. Then after they give him the ketamine, they didn't really do anything either. They kind of let him lie there for a few more minutes before loading him onto the ambulance, where they discovered he had no pulse. So all of that amounted to what prosecutors say was reckless negligence.

SIMON: What did the paramedics say in their defense?

SHERRY: You know, really the paramedics - Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec - stuck with this excited delirium story throughout. They took the stand in their own defense. They said they followed their training for delirium to a tee. But body-worn camera footage shows McClain wasn't exhibiting excited delirium symptoms, especially when the paramedics arrived. He was handcuffed. He was still struggling with police, who he told he couldn't breathe. But he wasn't showing signs of crazy strength or deliriousness. So the paramedics saying that under oath, I think, could have seemed a little hollow to the jurors.

SIMON: Five men have now been tried in the death of Elijah McClain - three police officers and the two paramedics - all of whom are white. Did they all get criminal convictions?

SHERRY: No. Two of the officers originally charged were acquitted. But officer Randy Roedema and these two paramedics, Cooper and Cichuniec, were all convicted of criminally negligent homicide. And all of them will be sentenced next year. And it's a pretty big sentencing range in Colorado, from probation - so no prison time at all - to six years. The paramedic supervisor, though, I'll note, was led away in handcuffs on Friday because he was also convicted of an assault charge that guarantees custody.

SIMON: And, Allison, what's been the response of Elijah McClain's family?

SHERRY: Well, Sheneen McClain, Elijah McClain's mother, was extremely emotional afterwards. She left the courtroom saying, we did it, in tears with supporters. She texted me late Friday that she's still processing the verdict. She's hoping to speak to reporters next week.

SIMON: Allison Sherry with Colorado Public Radio, thanks so much.

SHERRY: Thanks for having me.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Allison Sherry