Update (Sept. 1, 2021): The five officers and paramedics involved in the killing of 23-year-old Elijah McClain have been indicted on 32 charges by a grand jury.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced the charges on Wednesday, saying the first responders have been charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, CBS News reported.
“We’re here today because Elijah McClain is not here and he should be,” Weiser said, according to CNN. “When he died he was only 23 years old. He had his whole life ahead of him and his family and his friends must now go on and must live without him.”
In January, Weiser said he would be conducting an independent investigation into the Aurora resident’s death during an arrest in August 2019.
McClain was walking home from a convenience store wearing a ski mask when he was placed in a chokehold by officers after someone called 911 for a suspicious person. Three officers arrived and arrested McClain, who was found unarmed.
First responders injected the 23-year-old with a sedative during the arrest and he experienced a heart attack before he was later removed from life support. His death sparked calls of racial injustice around the country just months after the police killing of George Floyd.
Two officers, a former police officer and two paramedics have now been charged with one count each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Two of the officers involved are also charged with assault and crime of violence. The paramedics have been charged with assault and recklessly causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon — the sedative that McClain was injected with, CNN reported.
In 2019, a local district attorney declined to charge the people involved with McClain’s death, citing a lack of evidence.
There has been widespread outrage in Aurora, Colorado, and beyond over what happened to McClain last August. The 23-year-old was simply walking down the street when officers put him in a chokehold, arrested him and sedated with a shot of ketamine.
McClain went into cardiac arrest and died three days later in the hospital.
But a new wave of furor was started when it was revealed that three officers mockingly took a photo of themselves choking each other near a memorial for McClain in October.
During a July 3 press conference, interim Aurora Police Department Chief Vanessa Wilson apologized to the city and to McClain’s family while discussing the photo of officers Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich and Jaron Jones. The three took a selfie standing near a memorial for McClain with Jones’ arm wrapped around Dittrich’s neck.
The three sent the photo to Jason Rosenblatt, one of the officers who arrested McClain before his death. Rosenblatt, who was also fired along with two of the officers, wrote “Haha” in response.
The officer who choked McClain, Nathan Woodyard, also got the photo but was not fired because he didn’t respond to the message.
“While the allegations of this internal affairs case are not criminal, it is a crime against humanity and decency. To even think about doing such a thing is beyond comprehension and it’s reprehensible. It shows a lack of morals, values and integrity, and a judgment that I can no longer trust to allow them to wear this badge,” Wilson said during the press conference.
The situation has sparked complaints from activists in Colorado and McClain’s family, who say more was done to discipline the officers for the photo than to address McClain’s death.
“Rosenblatt got fired not for killing Elijah, not for murdering Elijah, but for making fun of Elijah. That is the culture that we’re fighting, where a police officer can murder a Black man, a Black child, and keep his job and stay on the force so he can go make fun of this child,” community organizer and family friend Terrence Roberts told the Associated Press.
A lawyer for McClain’s mother said the photo was horrifying and callous considering what happened to the young man.
“It was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son. The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to reenact the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” family attorney Mari Newman said.
The recent protests around police brutality and deaths at the hands of officers have brought renewed scrutiny to McClain’s case. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was forced to ask the state attorney general to investigate what happened to McClain.
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has said the city may ban the use of ketamine as a sedative after McClain’s death, according to CBS4.
On August 24, 2019, McClain was walking home when someone called 911 on him because he was wearing a ski mask. He was wearing headphones, and police said he did not stop when they told him to. He had not done anything or committed any crimes when police tried to restrain him, according to The New York Times.
Officers said in their report that he resisted arrest and grabbed for a gun, but body camera footage showed that McClain did not do either and actually begged the officers to let him leave.
“Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking,” McClain said.
After the chokehold, paramedics pumped 500 milligrams of ketamine into him. The city’s coroner could not determine what exactly killed McClain, and District Attorney Dave Young decided not to file charges against the officers involved, according to CBS4.
“Officers had a lawful reason to contact Mr. McClain. The force applied during the altercation to include the carotid control hold and the force applied during the altercation was within policy and consistent with training,” the district attorney’s office said in a letter.
The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and FBI have said they may look into the situation.
The three officers who arrested McClain, Rosenblatt, Woodyard and Randy Roedema, were initially placed on administrative leave but have since been reinstated back to the force.
“I shouldn’t have to teach this. There is no training that should have to teach human decency,” Wilson said at the press conference.
The Aurora Civil Service Commission will review the officers’ appeal.