Paramedic Avoids Prison in Death of Elijah McClain

A Colorado paramedic convicted in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young, unarmed Black man, was sentenced to four years of probation with 14 months of work release on Friday, the final chapter of an explosive case that thrust the Denver suburb of Aurora into the national spotlight and helped usher in sweeping public safety reforms.

Jeremy Cooper, 49, a former paramedic with Aurora Fire Rescue, was found guilty in December of criminally negligent homicide. A second paramedic, Peter Cichuniec, 51, a former lieutenant with the department, was sentenced last month to five years in prison.

Judge Mark Douglas Warner of the District Court in the 17th Judicial District said neither the jury nor the court saw evidence that Mr. Cooper purposely gave Mr. McClain an overdose though his actions deviated from the standard of care. “It’s almost unthinkable the way things rolled out,” he said, later adding, “It didn’t have to happen.”

In a rare criminal prosecution of emergency personnel, the convictions called into question the role that paramedics play in police encounters. Mr. Cooper, Mr. Cichuniec and three police officers were prosecuted in the district court in three back-to-back trials last year. Randy Roedema, a former Aurora police officer, was sentenced to 14 months in a county jail.

Elijah McClain died days after he had been subdued by three policemen and injected with ketamine in August 2019.Credit…Family Photo, via Reuters

During the encounter, Mr. Cooper injected Mr. McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative, while he was in police custody — and after officers had forcefully subdued him and placed him in a neck restraint. Mr. McClain went into cardiac arrest and died in a hospital days later.

At the beginning of the hearing, family, friends and colleagues testified to Mr. Cooper’s character, describing him as a highly decorated professional who cared for his patients with compassion and empathy, and did the best that he could to save Mr. McClain’s life. Through tears, his wife, Tarrah Cooper, said the father of three was a natural-born caretaker and that “a part of his soul died” when he learned he could no longer be a paramedic.

Next, Mr. Cooper addressed his comments to Mr. McClain: “First, I want you to know how sorry I am that I couldn’t save you,” he said choking back tears. As Mr. Cooper spoke, Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, and several activists walked out of the courtroom. He vowed to spend the balance of his life trying to “learn and grow” and “understand the why” of Mr. McClain’s death.

Ms. McClain, who has regularly attended the trial and sentencing hearings, said that as she viewed the videos of the police stop multiple times, she wondered why none of the officers and paramedics did “the right thing.”

“Jeremy Cooper was a threat to my son and an accomplice to my son’s murder,” she said. At one point, Ms. McClain was overcome by emotion. She closed her speech by raising her hand into the air, “From my heart to my hands, long live Elijah McClain for always and forever.”

In suggesting Mr. Cooper be incarcerated, Jason Slothouber, a state prosector, said Mr. Cooper had not taken responsibility for his actions, yet was the person most responsible for Mr. McClain’s death.

Community activists, who had led rallies and protests calling for accountability in the case, were discouraged by Mr. Cooper’s sentence.

“The American legal system has shown itself to be broken,” said Hashim Coates, a community activist. “I guess one could say that it is a step that we are here over a Black life being taken, but outside of that, it’s business as usual.”

Mr. McClain, 23, was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora on Aug. 24, 2019, when he was stopped by the police after a 911 caller described Mr. McClain as “sketchy.” He was waving his arms, dancing and wearing a mask, which his mother said he did because he was anemic and needed to stay warm. Though not suspected of committing any crime, Mr. McClain was stopped by the police. In an escalating 18-minute confrontation, he was arrested and handcuffed as he pleaded for his life and his condition rapidly deteriorated.

The paramedics never spoke to Mr. McClain, touched him or checked his vital signs before diagnosing him with excited delirium, a controversial diagnosis. Then they injected him with what authorities said was an excessive amount of ketamine for Mr. McClain’s weight. Throughout three separate trials, state prosecutors contended that the excessive force by police and reckless medical decisions by paramedics had collectively killed Mr. McClain.

Stretching over nearly five years, the case shook and divided the city of Aurora and its embattled police force. Social justice activists who had long accused the force of brutality and racism against Aurora’s Black community.

The life and death of Mr. McClain — described by friends as a gentle massage therapist, violinist and animal lover — was among the most intensely followed stories during the social justice protests of 2020 that followed the death of George Floyd. In the aftermath, local and state investigations helped prompt policy changes in the police and fire departments, including a ban on chokeholds and restrictions on the use of ketamine. Both departments were also placed under a five-year consent decree agreement designed to improve performance, reduce bias and rebuild public trust.

After the joint paramedic convictions in December, Aurora Fire Rescue allowed its paramedics the option of limiting their emergency medical services to reduce exposure to criminal liability. Since the option became available in December, 28 of the 239 paramedics — nearly 12 percent — have requested the limited duties. Two of the paramedics made their decision after Mr. Cichuniec’s sentencing.

The Aurora fire chief, Alec Oughton, said that while Mr. McClain’s death was tragic, the convictions had essentially criminalized urgent, on-the-ground medical care.

“Now, medics fear malicious or criminal culpability for making split-second discretionary decisions while providing that care,” he said.

Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora N.A.A.C.P., said both departments had improved the training of incoming police officers and firefighters.

“Unfortunately, we had to get to this point as a result of the tragedy and murder of Elijah McClain,” Mr. Montgomery said. “We’re on our way to having a model of public safety that our state can be proud of, our residents can be proud of, and hopefully the community that they serve will definitely be proud of. But work still needs to be done.”

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