Paramedics Found Guilty of Criminally Negligent Homicide in Death of Elijah McCain

Allen Zhong
By Allen Zhong
December 23, 2023US News
Paramedics Found Guilty of Criminally Negligent Homicide in Death of Elijah McCain
Paramedic Jeremy Cooper (L) enters the Adams County, Colo., Justice Center in Brighton, Colo., on Dec. 22, 2023. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, both paramedics from the Aurora Fire Rescue in Colorado, were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide connected to the death of Elijah McClain by a jury on Friday.

Mr. Cichuniec was also found guilty of one of two second-degree assault charges, which could bring him an enhanced prison sentence.

Due to the assault charge conviction, Mr. Cichuniec was taken into custody right after the verdict was read.

Mr. Cooper was found not guilty on the assault charges and can stay free on bail before a March 1 sentencing.

This was the end of three trials against police and paramedics charged in the death of Mr. McClain, whom officers stopped following a suspicious person complaint. He was injected with a sedative after being forcibly restrained.

An Aurora police officer was convicted of homicide and third-degree assault earlier this year, while two other officers were acquitted.

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Paramedics Jeremy Cooper (3rd R) and Peter Cichuniec (back L) enter the Adams County, Colo., Justice Center, on Dec. 22, 2023. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

Mr. McClain’s mother, Sheneen, raised her fist in the air following the verdict. “We did it! We did it! We did it!” she said as she walked away from the courthouse.

Mr. Cichuniec’s wife had her head bowed as deputies handcuffed him. Mr. Cooper’s wife sobbed alongside her.

Neither the paramedics nor their attorneys spoke outside court. The Epoch Times reached out to the two paramedics’ attorneys for comments.

Death of Elijah McClain

Mr. McClain, 23, was stopped by the police while he was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, following a suspicious person complaint. After an officer said Mr. McClain reached for an officer’s gun—a claim disputed by prosecutors—another officer put him in a neck hold that rendered him temporarily unconscious. Officers also pinned down Mr. McClain before Mr. Cooper injected him with an overdose of ketamine, a sedative. Mr. Cichuniec was the senior officer and said it was his decision to use ketamine.

The original autopsy conducted on Mr. McClain in 2019 found the cause of death to be “undetermined.” But a revised autopsy report in 2021 concluded Mr. McClain died from “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.”

Local prosecutors initially declined to file charges. That changed following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

After Mr. Floyd’s death ignited global protests, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in June 2020 asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate Mr. McClain’s case. A state grand jury indicted the officers and paramedics in 2021.

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A demonstrator carries an image of Elijah McClain during a rally and march in Aurora, Colo., on June 27, 2020. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

Mr. McClain received 500 milligrams of ketamine before his death. The dosage was repeatedly under scrutiny during the trial.

Prosecutors and experts from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office insisted that the two paramedics should have conducted basic medical checks of Mr. McClain before giving him the ketamine, which violated their training protocols, and the dose was too much for McClain’s size—140 pounds.

The prosecutors also said that the two paramedics didn’t monitor Mr. McClain immediately after giving him the sedative but left him lying on the ground instead, making it harder to breathe.

However, the defendants stated that they followed the training they received and were not told ketamine could be fatal. Mr. Cooper also testified that he estimated Mr. McClain’s weight to be 200 pounds.

‘Excited Delirium’

Defense attorneys argued that the paramedics followed their training in giving ketamine to Mr. McClain after diagnosing him with “excited delirium,” a medical term commonly used by first responders to describe suspects who appear to be acutely distressed, hyperactive, or aggressive during police encounters.

“The relevant question is whether it was reasonable for these two gentlemen to believe that he was suffering from excited delirium, that he was acting consistent with what their training and their protocol told them was excited delirium,” defense attorney David Goddard said in his closing.

The term “excited delirium” became highly controversial after waves of social justice protests and police-community tensions reached a new high.

The Colorado Peace Officers Standards and Training Board ruled unanimously without debate on Dec. 1 to prohibit “excited delirium” from being taught as a diagnosis to new officers in training.

Some medical groups including The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) also argued that the term should not be listed as a cause of death.

“Although the terms ‘Excited Delirium’ or ‘Excited Delirium Syndrome’ have been used by forensic pathologists as a cause of death in the past, these terms are not endorsed by NAME or recognized in renewed classifications of the WHO, ICD-10, and DSM-V. Instead, NAME endorses that the underlying cause, natural or unnatural (to include trauma), for the delirious state be determined (if possible) and used for death certification,” NAME said in a statement in March 2023.

Chilling Effects

It’s rare for emergency medical responders to be charged and convicted in wrongful death cases. The conviction of the two paramedics could bring a chilling effect and may change substantially how they handle similar cases in the future.

The conviction received responses of outrage from firefighter unions.

“The criminalization of chemical sedation by firefighters has to be completely reevaluated. Based on this situation, I do not believe it’s fair or reasonable to require any firefighter to give anybody any chemical sedation,” Charles Richardson, general counsel for Aurora Fire Fighters Local 1290, said in a statement.

Edward Kelly, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the conviction of Mr. Cichuniec and Mr. Cooper will compromise public safety as a result.

“Today’s verdicts against Fire Fighter/Paramedic Jeremy Cooper and Captain Pete Cichuniec only compound this tragedy,” he said in a statement. “Colorado Attorney General [Philip] Weiser’s decision to criminalize split-second medical decisions sets a dangerous, chilling precedent for pre-hospital care in our country. There are far-reaching consequences we will address at a more appropriate time. But when politics drive prosecution–forcing firefighters and paramedics to second-guess decisions–public safety is compromised.”

NTD Photo
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (L), speaks outside the Adams County, Colo., Justice Center after a verdict was rendered in the killing of Elijah McClain, on Dec. 22, 2023. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

The outcome could set a precedent for how emergency personnel respond to situations with people in police custody, said University of Miami criminologist Alex Piquero.

“Imagine if you’re a paramedic,” Mr. Piquero said. “They could be hesitant. They could say, ‘I’m not going to do anything’ or ‘I’m going to do less. I don’t want to be found guilty.’”

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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