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Elijah McClain case: In opening statements, defense attorneys for Aurora officers put blame on paramedics

Opening statements began Wednesday afternoon after jury selection was completed in the morning
Posted: 6:45 PM, Sep 20, 2023
Updated: 2023-09-20 22:44:41-04
Redi Elkus

ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. — Two Aurora police officers sat in court for opening statements in their trials Wednesday, nearly 1,500 days after Elijah McClain was stopped by police, put in a carotid hold and injected with ketamine. He died a few days later.

Jury selection wrapped up on Wednesday morning and opening statements began after lunch in the joint trial for Aurora Police Department (APD) officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt (former). Both previously pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault.

They are two of five people facing a jury trial in this case: In addition to Roedema and Rosenblatt, a third officer, Nathan Woodyard, has a trial beginning Oct. 13 for the charges against him of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault. He is accused of putting McClain in the carotid hold. Two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics — Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper — have trials beginning Nov. 17 and 27, respectively, for charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, plus sentence enhancers. The paramedics are accused of injecting a significant amount of ketamine into McClain, causing him to overdose.

Elijah McClain case: In opening statements, defense puts blame on paramedics

McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, encountered police on Aug. 24, 2019 after a person called 911 to report a “sketchy” man walking in Aurora. Police responded and put McClain, who was unarmed and had not committed a crime, into a carotid hold. Paramedics administered a sedative called ketamine, which officials said led to cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. In 2020, neck holds by police were banned by the state’s legislature and in 2021, House Bill 21-1251 banned police officers from directing medical personnel to administer ketamine or other chemical restraints on another person.

McClain was declared brain dead days after police stopped him and died Aug. 30, 2019. A pathologist found he was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for somebody of his size and, as a result, he overdosed. All five people facing jury trials pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in January 2023 in the wake of a grand jury indictment.

The opening statements began in the afternoon on Wednesday after more than two days of jury selection.

Prosecutor Jonathan Bunge with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office began by saying that evidence in this case will show beyond a reasonable doubt that both defendants violated their oaths and failed the mandates of their own police department. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that McClain had committed a crime, or was about to, Bunge said.

Within the 18 minutes McClain was in the custody of the defendants, he became a casualty of those who had sworn to protect him, Bunge said.

He then provided an overview of what prosecutors believed happened on the evening of Aug. 24, 2019.

McClain, who was 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds, lived near a Shell station and went to its minimart that evening, as he did almost every day, and purchased some iced tea. That night, which was about 67 degrees, he was wearing a brown jacket and black runners mask because he was always cold — something his loved ones later told authorities, Bunge said. McClain would often go running at lunchtime on hot days in a jacket.

As he walked home, a 17-year-old called 911 after believing that McClain was acting strangely. The dispatcher asked if the caller was in danger or if McClain had any visible weapons. The caller said no, that he hadn't seen any criminal activity and did not know if McClain was a "good person or a bad person."

Based on the call, Roedema, Rosenblatt and Woodyard responded to the area. Woodyard is being tried in a separate trial. Body camera footage provided a look into the next 18 minutes, when McClain was in their custody, though Bunge said some of the cameras were turned off or broken despite policy to keep them on.

Within nine minutes of police getting out of their patrol cars, and with no explanation, they had a hand on McClain, Bunge said. They took him to the ground without an explanation, he said. There, Roedema said to Rosenblatt, "Dude, he grabbed your gun" but Bunge said the evidence will show reasons to be skeptical of that. Police wear heavy holsters with locks on them, he said. Rosenblatt would later say he didn't feel anybody grab at his gun.

Rosenblatt and Woodyard then applied two carotid holds — a technique where an officer wraps an arm around somebody's neck to stop blood flow to the ground, rendering them temporarily unconscious — which both defendants were trained on, Bunge said. Roedema had been trained on the hold 11 days prior to the incident and Rosenblatt was trained on it the day prior to the interaction.

McClain was then handcuffed on the ground, where he repeated "I can't breathe" seven times, Bunge said. Roedema was on McClain's back during this time, Bunge said. He explained that at no time did any officers check McClain's pulse or breathing, apply first aid or check for coherency. In addition, if a person in their custody says they can't breathe, police are instructed to call paramedics to report the medical emergency, he said.

Randy Roedema
Defendant Randy Roedema walks into the Adams County Justice Center for the start of the Elijah McClain trial Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Brighton, Colo. The trial is expected to open soon against two police officers charged in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was forcibly detained while walking down a street near Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Bunge said McClain couldn't breathe because he had been throwing up, which is a byproduct of the carotid hold, and was drowning in his own vomit. An autopsy found digestive material and fluid in his lungs.

One of the body cam videos showed McClain struggling on the ground with Roedema on top of him. In the video, Roedema put his hands on the handcuffs, jerked McClain up, which was followed by a popping from his joints, Bunge said. McClain yelled in pain and then his last words were caught in the footage: "Please help me. Please help me," Bunge said.

When paramedics arrived at the scene, the officers did not say McClain had trouble breathing, but instead noted his "crazy strength," Bunge said. Paramedics responded by giving the 23-year-old ketamine, which both defendants approved of, as heard in the body cam footage.

"The last thing somebody needs who is struggling to breathe is a sedative," Bunge said.

As McClain was loaded into the ambulance, red material was coming out of his nose and mouth, according to the bodycam videos.

During the incident, Roedema turned off his body camera and at one point, reached over and turned off the recording for his boss's camera too, Bunge said.

Bunge said during the subsequent autopsy, Aurora police were in the room and when the doctor asked to see the bodycam footage, he was refused. His initial report would say that the cause of death was undetermined. This was later amended once he watched the body cam footage to say the cause of death was “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint” but left McClain's manner of death undetermined.

Jason Rosenblatt
Defendant Jason Rosenblatt walks into the Adams County Justice Center for the start of the Elijah McClain trial, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Brighton, Colo. The trial is expected to open soon against two police officers charged in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was forcibly detained while walking down a street near Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

After the prosecution's opening statement, the defense attorneys for Roedema and Rosenblatt provided their individual opening statements.

Defense attorney Redi Elkus, who represents Roedema, addressed the jury first.

He began by saying that McClain's death is a tragedy and nobody in the courtroom would say otherwise, but that doesn't mean a crime occurred.

Elkus was walking in a high-crime area — Billings Street and E. Colfax Avenue — that required a three-officer response to all calls, per APD policy, Elkus said. Of the three, Woodyard was the primary officer, meaning he was the decision-maker and would take lead on contacting a suspect while Roedema and Rosenblatt provided cover for him.

When they arrived, Woodyard was the one who ordered McClain to stop and then grabbed his arm, Elkus said. At this point, Roedema was still walking up to the scene, Elkus said.

The police did not know McClain was wearing headphones, so they believed he was not being compliant. Because of this, they moved him from the rocky area where he was standing to a spot covered in grass to bring him down, Elkus said. McClain was actively resisting officers as they tried to move him, he said. At that point, McClain grabbed for an officer's gun, Elkus said, noting that the evidence that this happened is Roedema's statement caught on camera and lack of a motive for him to lie about it.

If a suspect reaches for an officer's gun, it is an intent to cause serious bodily injury or death to the officer, Elkus said, and under those circumstances an officer can use a wide range of forces, from shooting a person or using a Taser to a punch or taking the suspect to the ground. Elkus said in this case, Roedema showed restraint by using the latter.

Elkus challenged the prosecution's statements, saying Rosenblatt tried to use the carotid hold on McClain but was unsuccessful. Only Woodyard, who took over afterward, was actually successful in the hold.

Elkus said after officers put McClain in handcuffs, they called Aurora Fire Rescue, notified their supervisor, and placed McClain in a recovery position on his side so he didn't aspirate — everything that aligns with APD training and policy. He also said the prosecution's claim that Roedema had a knee on McClain's back for 15 minutes is false, noting that his knee was on McClain's arm.

During the time that McClain was on his side, he was breathing and talking with officers, Elkus said. That changed when paramedics got to the scene.

When Aurora Fire Rescue arrived, total control went to the medics, Elkus explained, and they alone decided to inject ketamine after diagnosing McClain with excited delirium. In a bodycam video, paramedic Cooper, who will face a jury trial in November, said he would give McClain 500 mg of ketamine and then administered it, Elkus said.

He said McClain died because Cooper administered too much of the ketamine and medical experts will say during the trial that without it, he likely would not have died. Experts will explain that the failure of the paramedics to assess McClain ahead of time led to the death, as they did not determine his weight or if he was awake, did not assess his breathing or CO2 levels and did not check on his pulse or circulation, Elkus said.

Those medical experts will say the carotid hold did not cause his death, he added.

Other experts will say that the officers acted in pursuant to their training and APD policy — and in that case, they did not commit any crimes, Elkus said.

He concluded by saying the only just verdict in the case against Roedema is not guilty.


Read more Elijah McClain stories | 360 In-Depth Coverage

1:10 PM, Sep 19, 2023

Lastly on Wednesday afternoon, attorney Harvey Steinberg stood to provide opening statements in defense of Rosenblatt, who he said was the most inexperienced of the three officers and went as a cover officer for Woodyard. He only became involved after McClain did not comply, Steinberg said. He attempted to apply the carotid hold on McClain after another officer said McClain had reached for his gun.

However, as Elkus noted and Steinberg reiterated, Rosenblatt was unable to do the hold properly. After Woodyard successfully did it, the officers followed protocol by putting McClain in a recovery position, calling Aurora Fire Rescue and calling their supervisor, Steinberg said.

He also reviewed the 2019 autopsy and then the amended one in July 2021. With the latter, he stressed that the coroner found that there were no findings that police officers contributed to his death.

Steinberg stressed to the jury the importance of removing emotion and sympathy from the case and to look only at the law.