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.
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. 13 proceedings.
Wednesday, Dec. 13
Wednesday morning's testimony began by calling Dr. Roger A. Mitchell to the stand. The forensic pathologist currently serves as chief medical officer for the Howard University Adult Ambulatory Care Center. He has been working on the McClain case for two and a half to three years.
He testified in the previous trial for Aurora officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt, as well as the trial for Aurora Officer Nathan Woodyard. In those trials, he was accepted as an expert in several fields, including forensic pathology, cause of death, in-custody death and excited delirium.
He was also accepted as an expert in those fields during the trial on Wednesday as well.
Mitchell recalled that when he first became involved in the case, McClain's cause of death was listed as undetermined. That could be for a myriad of reasons, Mitchell said, though he noted the rate of listing a cause of death as undetermined is less than 5% in credited offices.
Using the report from Dr. Cina's autopsy, Mitchell was able to name the cause of death as "complications following acute ketamine administration during violence subdual and restraint by law enforcement and emergency response personnel." The manner of death was homicide, he listed in his report.
Mitchell explained that chemical restraints, like ketamine, are used when a person has become unruly, violent, active or hard to restrain. He said there was no need for a chemical restraint in this case given McClain's condition just prior to the ketamine injection.
“There’s no reason for it," he testified.
He listed out several things that first responders should have done prior to giving McClain the ketamine, which included measuring his breathing. By the time he was on the gurney, McClain did not have a clear airway and needed his mouth and nose suctioned to remove materials, Mitchell said.
“The ketamine administration was listed in my cause of death as a cause, so those who administered that ketamine are responsible for the death," he said.
Prosecutors asked him what Mitchell had analyzed in this case. He explained the first thing he wanted to review was the autopsy report and all the findings from the forensic pathologist. He also said he wanted to look at photos and diagrams from the autopsy, as well as any available body tissue. He examined video footage, hospital records, previous medical records, statements and reports from other experts and more. Mitchell said he sought the expertise from a pulmonologist and anesthesiologist as well. Having done this, he said he felt he had a good picture of the autopsy, despite not being in the room for it back in 2019.
Based on his examination of those documents and materials, he determined there was evidence of aspiration — meaning fluid from the stomach is in the lungs — and food in McClain's airway. His body had reacted to this, meaning he was alive at the time, Mitchell said. He was able to rule out asthma as a factor in McClain's death because he did not have any mucus in his airway.
He also ruled out any heart issues, as McClain's heart was "relatively normal for his age," Mitchell said. Previous reports had noted a narrowed coronary artery, but Mitchell said if this had had an impact on McClain, his heart would have been diseased, scarring and looked different.
On the outside of his body, Mitchell noted multiple abrasions on McClain's body and face, as well as broken blood vessels in his eye, likely from the carotid hold, he said.
“Hypoxia started his cascade downward during the altercation," he said.
The autopsy found that McClain's organs were in good condition. Because McClain was an organ donor, his kidneys were donated to a person in need, Mitchell said.
Aside from those documents, Mitchell also watched the body-worn camera footage, which provided a third-party objective view, he said. This was helpful because he didn't have to rely on reports to see what happened, Mitchell said.
Following a mid-morning break, defense attorney Michael K. Pellow, who represents paramedic Cooper, cross-examined Mitchell.
Pellow confirmed that McClain aspirated before Aurora Fire Rescue personnel arrived at the scene and that that contributed to his rapid deterioration. He also confirmed that this was while McClain was in custody of police.
Pellow asked if Mitchell heard in the BWC an officer ask McClain, "Hey, are you alright?" and no answer from McClain.
When asked, Mitchell confirmed that he diagnosed McClain without ever touching him or seeing him alive.
“If ketamine had never been given to Mr. McClain, in your opinion, he might have died from what police officers did to him, right?" Pellow asked.
“I don’t know. He needed life-saving measures at that point," Mitchell responded.
Defense attorney David M. Goddard, who represents Paramedic Cichuniec, also cross-examined Mitchell.
Goddard asked if Mitchell still performs autopsies, and he said he did as recently as earlier this week. Goddard also asked about the compensation Mitchell was earning for his testimony across all three trials.
When asked, Mitchell said he believed that based on the records he looked at, staff in the ambulance and at the hospital attempted life-saving measures on McClain. But he said he did not hear any time in the body-worn camera footage any police officers relaying to paramedics that McClain had claimed he couldn't breathe.
The court then broke for a lunch break at noon.
After the break, Mitchell continued his testimony. Prosecutors asked if the actions of the paramedics caused MClain's death, Mitchell replied by saying "Yes." After his testimony, prosecutors told the judge they had no additional witnesses and that they will be resting their case.
The Judge excused the jury for the day and told them to return Thursday morning when the defense will start calling witnesses.
PREVIOUS DAYS OF THIS TRIAL:
- Day 1 - Wednesday, Nov. 29
- Day 2 - Thursday, Nov. 30
- Day 3 - Friday, Dec. 1
- Day 4 - Monday, Dec. 4
- Day 5 - Tuesday, Dec. 5
- Day 6 - Wednesday, Dec. 6
- (No court on Thursday, Dec. 7)
- (No court on Friday, Dec. 8)
- Day 7 - Monday, Dec. 11
- Day 8 - Tuesday, Dec. 12