By Colleen Slevin and Matthew Brown, The Associated Press
Prosecutors seeking a conviction of two Aurora police officers in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain implored a jury during closing arguments Tuesday to remember that 23-year-old Black man was just trying to walk home the night he was put in a neck hold and and pinned down by the officers before paramedics injected him with a powerful sedative.
Defense attorneys countered that the two officers suburb had no choice but to forcefully subdue McClain after he resisted them.
The case now rests in the hands of 12 jurors who will decide whether Aurora officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt are guilty of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault — all felonies. An assault conviction carries the most serious penalty, up to 16 years in prison.
“His name was Elijah McClain. He was going home,” prosecutor Duane Lyons told the jury, echoing McClain’s words that were captured on police body camera video. “He was someone who mattered,” Lyons added, as a photo of a smiling McClain was shown in court.
Roedema defense attorney Donald Sisson urged jurors to reject the prosecution’s emotional appeals and focus on the potential dangers faced by the officers.
“If they don’t act, they may not go home to their family that night,” Sisson said. He added that the officers repeatedly told McClain to stop fighting and they had to react quickly after Roedema shouted out during the confrontation that McClain had reached for another officer’s gun.
McClain was stopped while walking home from a convenience store Aug 24, 2019, listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face. A 911 caller reported him as suspicious and the police stop quickly became physical with McClain, a massage therapist seemingly caught off guard, asking to be left alone. He was not armed and had not been accused of any crime.
Prosecution witnesses testified that the sedative ketamine killed McClain. But they also said the restraint of McClain triggered a series of health problems that made it hard for McClain to breathe and more vulnerable to a fatal overdose.
Defense attorneys described McClain’s death as a tragedy. They did not call any witnesses during the weekslong trial, instead using questions for prosecution witnesses to make their case that the officers were innocent.
Rosenblatt’s attorney, Harvey Steinberg, said his client was a scapegoat who had nothing to do with McClain’s death. It was caused by the ketamine, Steinberg said.
“It was the paramedics,” Steinberg said. “And by the way, Rosenblatt wasn’t even nearby when all that takes place.”
But prosecutor Lyons said the officers failed to de-escalate the situation, ignored McClain’s obvious distress and turned off some of the body worn cameras during portions of the encounter.
“To say this was just a tragedy would trivialize what happened that evening. The defendants are guilty of crimes,” Lyons said.
McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain sat in the front row of the packed courtroom during the prosecution’s arguments.
Officer Nathan Woodyard — whose trial starts Friday— was the first to stop McClain. Within 10 seconds, Woodyard put his hands on McClain and turned him around. As McClain tried to escape his grip, Woodyard said, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
The encounter escalated, with Woodyard, Roedema and Rosenblatt taking McClain to the ground and Woodyard putting him in a neck hold and pressing against his carotid artery, temporarily rendering him unconscious. The officers later told investigators they took McClain down after hearing Roedema say, “He grabbed your gun dude.”
The statement can be heard on body camera footage, but it was difficult to see exactly what happened. The extensive video of the moments leading to his death were shown repeatedly to jurors.
Two paramedics, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, were also charged in McClain’s death and are scheduled to go on trial in November.
The local district attorney did not pursue criminal charges in 2019, but the case was re-examined in 2020 after Gov. Jared Polis asked state Attorney General Philip Weiser to investigate amid protests over police brutality against Black people following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Roedema and Woodyard are currently suspended without pay. Rosenblatt is the only officer involved in the incident who was fired — not for the fatal encounter itself, but for making light of other officers’ reenactment of the neck hold.