Sep 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

First trial of officers charged in Elijah McClain's death begins

People rally outside the Aurora Police Department Headquarters to demand justice for Elijah McClain on June 27, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Opening arguments began Wednesday in the trial of Aurora officer Randy Roedema and former officer Jason Rosenblatt, who face criminal charges in the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.

Why it matters: The officers are the first of five first responders to stand trial for McClain's killing.

Catch up quick: McClain was stopped by officers while walking home from a convenience store.

  • He was quickly restrained by officers and put in a chokehold before paramedics injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest and was later declared brain dead. McClain was taken off life support on Aug. 30, 2019.

Zoom in: Both sides painted a split picture to the jury Wednesday of what unfolded the night of Aug. 24 after a 911 caller reported a "sketchy" man wearing a ski mask walking down the street.

Details: State prosecutor Jonathan Bunge accused the two officers of ignoring McClain's pleas for help and characterized their use of force as a "deliberate infliction of pain." Bunge emphasized McClain was stopped without legal cause and justified his face mask, saying he was often cold.

  • Bunge showed numerous graphic videos on a screen of McClain struggling to breathe, writhing in pain while officers restrained him, and "drowning in his own vomit."
  • The evidence in the case, he told jurors, will prove that officers used "excessive force," "violated their oaths" and "failed the mandates" of their department.

The other side: Attorneys for Roedema and Rosenblatt — who have pleaded not guilty to charges of criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter and assault — launched a staunch defense of their actions and shifted the blame.

  • The officers had nothing to do with McClain's death and followed protocol, attorneys argued. The ketamine administered before his heart and brain stopped was "all on the medics," said Reid Elkus, Roedema's attorney.
  • The officers' lawyers also focused on McClain's "suspicious" behavior and outerwear, telling jurors that he was stopped in a "high-crime area" and he actively resisted officers when approached.

Of note: It took attorneys days to finalize the 12-person jury — which appeared to be mostly white. Defenders and prosecutors were still arguing about its makeup on the first day of the trial, delaying it for hours.

  • Aurora, where McClain's death occurred, is about 17% Black and 56% white.

What's next: The trial is expected to last as long as four weeks, the AP reports.

  • A third officer, Nathan Woodyard — who is accused of putting McClain in the chokehold that led to him losing consciousness — is scheduled to stand trial in October. The trial against the two paramedics is scheduled for November. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Flashback: In 2021, a grand jury returned a 32-count indictment against Aurora police officers and paramedics.

Go deeper... Amended autopsy: Elijah McClain died from sedative after forcible restraint

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