When Attorney General Phil Weiser stood behind a microphone to announce the indictment of three cops and two paramedics in the death of Elijah McClain on Wednesday, his tone was somber and resolute.
“Our goal,” the grave-faced Weiser said, “is to seek justice for Elijah McClain, for his family and friends, and for our state.”
His approach to the police brutality case sounded entirely reasonable, even obvious. But it’s actually groundbreaking.
Prosecuting cops has always been a minefield. That’s why, until recently, it almost never happened.
Being a tough, politically popular prosecutor traditionally meant near absolute solidarity with police officers — even on the occasions when any reasonable person could see the cops were lying. Since prosecutors have always relied on police officers to provide the evidence they needed to win convictions, they often willingly suspended disbelief when cops related highly improbable scenarios that served their purposes.
That solidarity explains why the Adams County prosecutors dismissed complaints of criminal police brutality in the death of McClain and declined to charge the first responders after a cursory investigation in 2019.
They thought they could make it all go away quietly.
But then came the George Floyd murder video that put the lie to the Minneapolis Police Department’s release saying, “Man dies after medical incident in police interaction.”
And then came the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020.
Suddenly the ground had shifted. The very definition of justice changed at long last to include an honest reckoning for those who die at the hands of the police.
The justice for Elijah McClain movement could no longer be ignored.
So last year, Gov. Jared Polis enlisted Weiser to lead a real investigation into McClain’s death, and the AG said it would be “guided by a commitment to the facts, by thorough and diligent work, and be worthy of public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system.”
After months of work, the statewide grand jury assembled by Weiser’s office produced a 32-count indictment, including felony counts of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide against all five involved in the innocent young man’s death.
It’s been a long road, and it’s just a start.
Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, was relieved that at least the case was not dismissed again, even though a trial of the three cops and two EMTs will surely be excruciating.
The grand jury proved “I’m not just a crazy mom trying to fight a fight that’s not worthy,” she said.
In fact, Sheneen McClain is one of the miracles of this case.
When Elijah was killed, she was living in a hotel with her other children. She had been driving for Lyft, but got in an accident and was unable to work until she got another car.
She filed a civil rights lawsuit in Elijah’s death, but it got little or no attention for a long time.
“You know, Colorado was quiet,” she told Colorado Public Radio in a recent interview. “To have politicians out here saying that it was a justified murder, you know, was … very hard to deal with. There wasn’t anybody I could talk to.”
Then, when the Black Lives Matter movement raised the profile of Elijah’s case, everything started to change.
Contributions flowed into a GoFundMe page; national news media brought attention to the cause; and Sheneen McClain brought her resolve, intelligence and profound grief to bear in the pursuit of police reform.
She participated in the development and witnessed the ultimate enactment of a comprehensive police reform bill in the state legislature.
“I was told that they weren’t able to pass that bill before Elijah’s death,” she told CPR. “And I think to myself, if that bill had passed before Elijah’s murder, Elijah would still be here. So, it just makes me think of all the bad people that are in very powerful, very powerful seats that do nothing.”
A federal investigation is also under way into McClain’s death, and the AG’s office is investigating the policies and practices of the Aurora Police Department in the wake of the indictment.
It’s all a tribute to Sheneen McClain’s tenacity. Few of us have ever accomplished as much as she has in the past two mournful years.
But it comes at an awful price.
“We are here today because Elijah McClain is not here and he should be,” Weiser said.
“When he died, he was only 23 years old. He had his whole life ahead of him and his family and friends must go on and live without him. His life is a loss to all of us.”
Or at least most of us.
The Aurora Police Association responded to the news of the indictment with indignity and said the officers had done nothing wrong.
It gallingly called the response to McClain’s death a “hysterical overreaction.”
In fact, the reaction has been anything but hysterical.
It’s long overdue and if Sheneen McClain’s determination tells us anything, it’s only just begun.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.