One police officer has been found guilty and another acquitted over the 2019 death of 23-year-old massage therapist Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado, in a case that highlighted the issue of police violence against Black Americans.
Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault by the 12-person jury, while officer Jason Rosenblatt was found not guilty.
McClain, who was Black, was walking home from a convenience store in August 2019, listening to music and wearing a ski mask, when a 911 caller reported him as “looking sketchy.”
Officers then spotted McClain — who was not armed and had not committed any crime — and put him in a neck hold. Paramedics then arrived at the scene and injected the young man with ketamine. He died three days later.
The coroner’s report initially described the manner of McClain’s death to be “undetermined.” But public pressure, in combination with an executive order from the governor calling for an investigation into his death, resulted in the coroner providing an amended version in July 2021, writing that she believed the “tragic fatality is most likely the result of ketamine toxicity.”
A grand jury shortly thereafter indicted five people involved in the incident: three police officers and two paramedics. Over the past few weeks, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt have been on trial.
Prosecutor Duane Lyons told jurors: “They were trained. They were told what to do. They were given instructions. They had opportunities, and they failed to choose to de-escalate violence when they needed to, they failed to listen to Mr McClain when they needed to, and they failed Mr McClain.”
The defence, meanwhile, pointed fingers at the paramedics for injecting McClain with a fatal dose of ketamine.
Roedema, the senior patrol officer on the scene, placed him in a bar hammer lock; he said he heard McClain’s shoulder pop three times as a result of the movement. He was suspended from his post.
Mr Rosenblatt, by contrast, was fired from the department in the wake of the incident. However, his firing was not related to his interaction with McClain directly, but for laughing at a photo sent to him from a fellow officer re-enacting a neckhold that resembled the one used on McClain at the scene of the attack.
Mr McClain, who became a massage therapist at the age of 19, was described by friends as a gentle person — to both humans and animals. According to The Cut, he taught himself to play guitar and violin, and would play his violin for cats in a rescue shelter during his lunch breaks.
“I don’t even think he would set a mouse trap if there was a rodent problem,” his friend Eric Behrens told the Sentinel. Another friend — and former client — Marna Arnett called McClain “the sweetest, purest person I have ever met,” she added, “He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.”
“He wanted to change the world,” his mother, Sheneen McClain, told the outlet. “And it’s crazy, because he ended up doing it anyway.”
Bodycam footage of his arrest, released months after the ecounter, showed the heartbreaking details of how events unfolded.
Mr McClain had tried to resist officers attempts to grab him, politely telling them: “I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.” The officers repeatedly told McClain to “stop tensing up.”
Moments later, after being taken to the ground in the hold Mr McClain can be heard moaning, sobbing, repeating that “it hurts” and pleading with the officers to stop, before vomiting and apologising. An officer can also be heard threatening to “bring my dog out” to bite Mr McClain.
According to a report from an independent panel, the paramedics “waited almost seven minutes after arriving to interact with Mr. McClain, and their first contact was to administer the sedative ketamine.” He suffered from cardiac arrest on his way to the hospital and died a few days later.
Mr McClain’s parents later reached a $15m settlement with the city of Aurora. “I hope Elijah’s legacy is that police will think twice before killing another innocent person,” his father, LaWayne Mosley, said after the settlement was announced.