On a Saturday night in August 2019, Elijah McClain was walking home from an Aurora, Colorado, convenience store, where he had just bought three cans of iced tea, when he was accosted by police, who ultimately killed him. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, could not understand what he had done to provoke this confrontation—which is not surprising, because there was no legal justification for stopping, frisking, arresting, or assaulting him.
Yesterday, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that a statewide grand jury had indicted three officers and two paramedics who were involved in this baffling incident. The officers (Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema) and paramedics (Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec) face a total of 32 charges, including manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and second-degree assault.
"We have the solemn duty to prosecute this case and recognize that it will be difficult to prosecute—these types of cases always are," Weiser said. "Our goal is to seek justice for Elijah McClain, for his family and friends, and for our state. In so doing, we advance the rule of law and the commitment that everyone is accountable and equal under the law."
The rule of law was violated from the moment when Woodyard, responding to a 911 call from a teenager who thought McClain "look[ed] sketchy," ordered McClain to stop. McClain, who was listening to music on earbuds, evidently did not hear Woodyard, and the situation immediately escalated.
Woodyard grabbed McClain, and he and Rosenblatt forced him to a grassy area, where they tackled him, applied a "carotid control" twice, handcuffed him, and pinned him to the ground as he temporarily lost consciousness, repeatedly vomited, and repeatedly complained that they were hurting him and that he could not breathe. Roedema joined the assault, using a "bar hammer lock," which involved pulling McClain's arm behind his back. Roedema later said he "cranked pretty hard" on McClain's shoulder and heard it pop three times. In response to what they perceived as "excited delirium," Cooper and Cichuniec, the paramedics, injected McClain with an overdose of the anesthetic ketamine.
By the end of this encounter, McClain had no pulse and had to be resuscitated in the ambulance with an injection of epinephrine. He never regained consciousness, and he was declared brain dead three days later. According to the indictment, McClain "suffered hypoxia, cerebral hypoxia, hypoxemia, metabolic acidosis, aspiration, [and] respiratory arrest." The Adams County Coroner's Office said the cause of McClain's death was "undetermined" but added "it may be a homicide if the actions of officers led to his death." A forensic pathologist cited in the indictment concluded that McClain died due to complications from his violent treatment and the ketamine. He said the manner of death was homicide.
Now let's go back to the beginning of the encounter. What grounds did Woodyard and the other officers have for stopping McClain, let alone violently subduing him?
Despite the warm weather, McClain was wearing sweat pants, a jacket, a knit cap, and a ski mask, reportedly because he had anemia, one symptom of which is cold extremities. The 911 caller thought the ski mask was suspicious. He also reported that McClain was making "all these kinds of signs" with his hands. The caller added that "he might be a good person or a bad person." He said no one was in danger and he had not seen any weapons.
In a report issued last February, an independent panel of legal, law enforcement, and medical experts concluded that none of this amounted to "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity, the standard for an involuntary street stop. "Officer Woodyard's decision to turn what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop—in fewer than ten seconds—did not appear to be supported by any officer's reasonable suspicion that Mr. McClain was engaged in criminal activity," the report said. "This decision had ramifications for the rest of the encounter."
After grabbing McClain, Woodyard decided to frisk him, a step that is legally justified only if police reasonably suspect the subject is armed. Yet the 911 caller had not reported any weapons (a point that was noted in the police dispatcher's message), McClain was plainly holding nothing but his phone and the plastic bag from the convenience store, and Woodyard himself later said he "felt safe making an approach" because McClain "didn't have any weapons." The panel's report said "we were not able to identify sufficient evidence that Mr. McClain was armed and dangerous in order to justify a pat-down search."
The panel said the decision to tackle and pin McClain "likewise cannot be justified by the record." At this point, Woodyard's unjustified investigatory stop became an arrest, which is constitutionally permissible only when police have probable cause to believe someone has committed a crime. That is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion, a test the cops had already failed to meet. "Since Officer Woodyard's order to him to stop, the only facts that had changed were Mr. McClain's attempt and stated intention to keep walking in the direction he had been going and his 'tensing up,'" the report said. "In the Panel's view, none of these facts would be sufficient to establish probable cause of a crime."
While the officers were manhandling McClain, Roedema exclaimed, "He grabbed your gun, dude." That statement, Woodyard claimed, "changed the situation." Roedema later said he was referring to Rosenblatt's gun. But according to the indictment, Rosenblatt "stated that he did not feel any contact with his service weapon."
In any case, the independent panel noted, "Once he was lying on the ground, Mr. McClain's ability to reach an officer's gun or other weapons was limited by the fact that Officer Woodyard was on the ground behind him, with his gun and pepper spray pinned beneath him." If McClain "was no longer presenting a threat of harm to the officers, there would have been no justification for Officer Woodyard to apply a carotid hold." The body camera footage is unclear at this point, because the cameras were dislodged during the struggle. But the available record "does not provide evidence of the officers' perception of a threat that would justify Officer Woodyard's carotid hold, which caused Mr. McClain to either partially or fully lose consciousness."
A carotid hold involves pressing on the sides of the neck to induce temporary unconsciousness by cutting off blood flow to the brain. Woodyard's use of a carotid hold followed Rosenblatt's unsuccessful attempt at the same maneuver. "The risk of hypoxia and cerebral hypoxia was exacerbated by applying two carotid control holds," the indictment says. The three officers "had all been trained that the carotid hold posed dangers and should never be administered more than once."
The indictment notes that McClain "vomited multiple times while being restrained." Some of that vomit was found inside his ski mask, which he could not remove while he was restrained but "ultimately came off" after he was handcuffed. "Gurgling sounds by Mr. McClain were audible in body-worn camera video footage," which was "evidence of potential aspiration." McClain's breathing "further indicated he had hypoxia following the police restraint and use of the carotid control hold."
McClain was five feet, seven inches tall and weighed 143 pounds. But the officers, who said McClain's strength was "crazy" and "incredible" because of "whatever he's on," claimed their violence was justified because he resisted their unlawful attack on him. Providing further evidence of how everyone at the scene exaggerated the threat posed by McClain, Cooper gave him too much ketamine because he estimated that the short, slender man weighed 200 pounds, which was off by 57 pounds, or 40 percent.
After about two minutes on the scene, the indictment says, Cooper and Cichuniec "both concluded that Mr. McClain was suffering from excited delirium." As three medical experts note in a 2020 Brookings Institution article, "law enforcement officers nationwide are routinely taught that 'excited delirium' is a condition characterized by the abrupt onset of aggression and distress, typically in the setting of illicit substance use, often culminating in sudden death." But "this 'diagnosis' is not recognized by the vast majority of medical professionals. In fact, 'excited delirium' is not recognized by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, or the World Health Organization."
The indictment says Cooper and Cichuniec reached their conclusion about McClain's condition "after receiving some information from officers and observing Mr. McClain for about one minute." The cops were convinced that McClain was "definitely on
something," and they repeatedly grilled him about what drugs he had taken. "Weed," he said, but they did not believe him. Toxicology tests later found nothing psychoactive in McClain's blood except for THC and the ketamine.
The indictment notes that neither paramedic "ascertained Mr. McClain's vital signs, nor did either of them talk to or physically touch Mr. McClain before diagnosing him with excited delirium." Based on body camera footage, "an emergency room physician with expertise in paramedic protocols concluded that excited delirium was an inaccurate diagnosis born of the paramedics' failure to adequately assess Mr. McClain's symptoms, and further concluded that ketamine should never have been administered."
No one at the scene questioned that decision. "Yep, sounds good," Rosenblatt said when Cooper announced that he planned to inject McClain with ketamine. "Perfect, dude, perfect," Roedema agreed.
Piling error upon error, Cooper administered 500 milligrams of ketamine. Even if McClain actually weighed 200 pounds, that was too high a dose. "At that weight," the indictment says, "in accordance with the standing order from [the paramedics'] medical director, Mr. McClain should have been administered 453 mg of Ketamine." The correct dose for a 143-pound man would have been 325 milligrams, so McClain was given 175 milligrams too much, or 54 percent more than he should have received, even assuming that an involuntary ketamine injection was appropriate to begin with. The indictment notes that "the paramedics did not ask Mr. McClain how much he weighed."
The cascade of legal, tactical, and medical errors that led to McClain's death is especially appalling because all he wanted to do was go home, as he had every right to do. "Let me go," he told Woodyard after the officer grabbed him. "I am an introvert! Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking. Stop. Stop! I'm going home!" The cops responded to McClain's perfectly understandable objections by telling him to "relax," "stop tensing up," and "please cooperate." To which McClain replied: "No. Can you leave me alone?" For reasons only they can fully understand, they could not.