NewsElijah McClain | 360 In-Depth Coverage


Elijah McClain case: Defense witness offers differing perspective on ketamine

Posted: 1:04 PM, Dec 14, 2023
Updated: 2023-12-19 17:48:26-05
Elijah McClain

Two paramedics are at the center of the third and final trial in the case of Elijah McClain's 2019 death, and both defendants face charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, plus sentence enhancers.

McClain, 23, was stopped by officers with the Aurora Police Department (APD) on Aug. 24, 2019 and following a violent encounter, died a few days later.

Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper are accused of injecting a significant amount of ketamine into McClain. Medical experts have previously testified that he was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for somebody of his size. In previous trials, prosecutors said the carotid hold, which was applied by police before paramedics arrived, played a key role in his death, while defense attorneys argued that the cause of death was only the ketamine, and McClain would have survived the police encounter without the injection. The ketamine led to cardiac arrest. McClain was declared brain dead and died Aug. 30, 2019.

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Previously, a jury found APD Officer Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault, and former APD Officer Jason Rosenblatt, who was fired by the department less than a year after McClain's death, was acquitted of all charges. In the second trial, defendant APD Officer Nathan Woodyard was also found not guilty.

The trial for Cichuniec and Cooper is expected to last about a month.

Scroll down to read updates from the Dec. 14 proceedings.

Thursday, Dec. 14

Before the jury arrived in court, Thursday’s processings began with a defense motion to dismiss counts related to if Cooper or Cichuniec acted with the intent to use ketamine as a deadly weapon. Cooper defense attorney Shana Beggan argued that the prosecution presented no evidence that either paramedic “intended to use ketamine as a weapon” and that there’s been “no proof of that in this case.” The people on rebuttal said the evidence showed that the defendants “used it as a weapon and they caused injury” but Judge Mark Warner disagreed.

"With respect to whether or not the defendants Cooper and Cichuniec intended to use the ketamine as a weapon, which is the first step in the analysis of whether it's a deadly weapon, the evidence is not substantial and sufficient to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind beyond a reasonable doubt as to that element,” said Judge Warner. “The court will grant the motion with respect to counts 13 and 24 and the respective counts,” he said, adding that the court would strike the sentence enhancers.

The charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and assault remained.

After a break, the defense presented its first witness. Dr. Kennon Heard, MD., as an expert on toxicology. Heard is a professor and emergency medicine doctor at CU School of Medicine who also serves a Medical Toxicology Fellowship Director at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.

Heard, who said he had given ketamine more than 100 times in hospital settings during his medical career, was asked by the defense to give an opinion as to the safety of the sedative in and out of hospital use. When asked by the defense if the amount of ketamine in Elijah McClain’s blood, while he was at the hospital, was a toxic amount, Heard replied “no” and that he was “not aware of cases where someone stopped breathing from ketamine.”

He also added he believed that ketamine has a wide safety margin and that “giving more doesn’t cause more of the same effect.”Heard testified that he did not expect the amount of ketamine given to McClain would have caused a life-threatening effect.

On cross-examination, the prosecution pressed Dr. Heard on methods that should be followed during the administering of ketamine in hospital and non-hospital settings including patient assessments and monitoring of vitals like breathing and pulse after dosage.

The prosecution maintains this was not done when the sedative was given to McClain outside of the hospital.

The witness was excused and the court took its lunch recess.


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Following the midday break, the defense presented its next expert witness in the area of forensic pathology. Dr. Ljubisa Drajovic, a chief medical examiner from Michigan who has performed thousands of death examinations, reviewed Elijah McClain’s autopsy reports.

Contradicting the prosecution’s primary assertion as to ketamine’s alleged role in Elijah McClain’s death, Dr. Drajavoc testified that based upon his review he didn’t “believe it had any effect in this situation.”

Dr. Drajovic’s testimony differed from prosecution witness Dr. Steven Cina, a forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on McClain and first listed the cause of death as undetermined and at a later date determined ketamine was a factor after reviewing body-worn camera video.

Dr. Drajovic testified that he believed before paramedics administered ketamine, McClain was aspirating during the confrontation with Aurora police officers. “During the process of physical subdual, he vomited on several occasions,” said Drajovic adding there was evidence of vomit on the mask McClain was wearing. “This became a problem as he is getting more hypoxic, to the point he was handcuffed, he was continuing to exert physical activity by kicking. That was the first sign of the brain receiving less oxygen,” Drajovic testified.

The defense asked him if McClain had already aspirated once paramedics arrived. By looking at officers’ body-worn camera footage, Dr. Drajovic said “he had vomit and mucus coming out of his mouth” and added that he could not see if McClain had any obstructions in his nose.

In previous medical testimony, it was noted during the autopsy that McClain displayed signs of a narrow left coronary artery near the heart. Dr. Cina had testified that he believed the artery was a contributing factor before having a “full picture of what was going on.”

Earlier in the trial, Dr. Cina testified that “since then, the investigation showed he (McClain) was actually a distance runner and in good shape, so I don’t believe the coronary artery really played a factor. I believe he was born with just a small artery and had different capillaries serving that portion of the heart.”

In Thursday’s testimony, Dr. Drajovic pointed to the fact that McClain’s small coronary artery was described in the autopsy report but there was no additional evidence provided by Dr. Cina. Asked by the defense what he would have liked to see he added: “Photograph anything that is departing from normal and sample the area extensively” later testifying that the heart or any organ could be preserved if there is a concern it could be tied to the cause of death.

Asked to explain the type of evidence in the autopsy he’d expect to see if ketamine was the cause of death Dr. Drajovic testified he would expect the lungs to be filled with fluid and in McClain’s case, the autopsy showed McClain’s lungs exhibited an inflammatory response due to regurgitated gastric contents.

Before ketamine and during the struggle with officers, Dr. Drajovic said he noted from the body-worn footage that McClain was struggling to breathe. “Clearly grunting and garbling on the part of Elijah McClain during the process he was held by the officers,” he testified.

Dr. Drajovic was excused before the defense called its last witness of the day.

Gary Ludwig, a Missouri-based expert with 46 years of experience as a paramedic was called by the defense to testify to fire paramedic protocol and give insight into the different scenarios encountered by first responders outside of the hospital setting.

Ludwig, who estimated he has worked over 35,000 incidents, has worked in multiple firefighting and paramedic positions and rose to the level of Deputy Chief.

Broadly, Ludwig explained the order of priorities when responding to a situation as a paramedic stating that scene safety is the "First priority taught" not only for first responders but patients. "Victims cannot rescue victims," he said.

Ludwig testified in looking at Aurora Fire Rescue protocols he counted the word "safety" 16 times often in conjunction with the guidance when working with behavior health or combative patients.

In regards to excited delirium, which the defense has pointed to as a factor in McClain's death, Ludwig said it's not uncommon to see patients appear calm and then again become agitated. He added that in his opinion, excited delirium is life-threatening and without intervention, a patient could die.

Ludwig also testified it was common for medical first responders to rely upon information from officers. "No, we rely on what they are telling us." Prosecutors have criticized what they describe as paramedics' lack of action with Elijah McClain during his encounter with police.

When questioned by the defense if he could assess the condition without touching a patient he said "Correct, I could look at you and tell your ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation) are good."

Ludwig was excused as the court wrapped proceedings on Thursday. Ludwig's testimony is expected to continue at 8:30 a.m. on Friday.



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