Elijah McClain’s fatal encounter with police began on a summer night in 2019 when a 911 caller reported the young Black man wearing a ski mask and raising his hands in the air looked “unusual” in the Denver suburb of Aurora. ,
In fact, McClain, who often had a cold, was walking home from a convenience store while listening to the music.
But after some time the police stopped him and after struggling with him, caught hold of the 23-year-old youth’s neck. Paramedics then gave him a sedative, which authorities ultimately determined played a significant role in his death a few days later. McClain, a massage therapist known for his gentle nature, was unarmed and had committed no crime.
Four years after their deaths — which left a deep wound in their mother’s heart and sparked outrage over racial injustice in American policing — a trial for the two officers was scheduled to begin Friday with jury selection. Trials for a third officer and two paramedics are scheduled to begin later this year.
A jury will decide whether officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt are guilty of murder, criminal negligence manslaughter and assault charges in a trial expected to last nearly a month. He has pleaded innocent but has never spoken publicly about the allegations against him.
Roedema, a former Marine who is currently suspended without pay, was with the department for five years before McClain’s death. Rosenblatt had worked for the agency for two years and is the only officer who encountered McClain who was fired – not for the fatal encounter, but for highlighting an incident of neck hold by other officers.
Their attorneys — Donald Sisson for Roedema and Harvey Steinberg for Rosenblatt — did not respond to requests for comment.
He was indicted by a state grand jury in 2021 following an outcry over McClain’s death following the police killing of George Floyd. McClain’s pleading words, captured on body camera, including “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” drew widespread attention after Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
The grand jury indictment came nearly two years after a local prosecutor decided against prosecuting the officers because the coroner’s office could not determine how McClain died. He described McClain’s death as “tragic”, but said the investigation found it difficult to prove that officers’ actions led to his death.
A revised coroner’s report released in 2021 stated that the cause of death was complications from ketamine, but also noted that it occurred after McClain was forcibly restrained. Pathologist Stephen Cena wrote that he could not rule out whether the stress of being restrained by officers may have contributed to McClain’s death.
Cena found that McClain, who weighed 140 pounds, was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for anyone of his size. McClain became extremely unconscious within minutes of being given the ketamine, Cena wrote, adding that he believed McClain was gasping for air when he was placed on a stretcher.
His death increased scrutiny of how police and paramedics use ketamine. It is often used on the orders of police who believe suspects are out of control.
Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, declined an interview request ahead of the trial, but has long demanded the authorities who prevented her son be sent to prison. She and McClain’s father, LaVain Mosley, sued Aurora and won a $15 million settlement with the city.
Experts say that the case against the officers is far from a big deal.
Herman Walz, a defense attorney and former prosecutor and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said, with ketamine blamed for McClain’s death, it will be difficult for prosecutors to convince jurors that the police officers killed him. Are responsible for the death.
“They don’t have any direct ties to the police. They may have a better case against the EMTs,” he said.
But Jonathan Smith, who helped with the Aurora investigation and is senior special counsel for the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said even if they can’t prove that the officers’ actions contributed to McClain’s death , prosecutors can still try to win a conviction on assault charges.
Except when the officers thought McClain had taken one of their guns, Smith said there was no legal justification for using force against McClain.
Like many cases of police brutality today, officers’ body camera footage played a major role in bringing to light what happened. The officers’ cameras were eventually turned off but continued recording, although sometimes capturing only audio.
The video shows it begin when one of the officers — Nathan Woodyard, who is facing trial later this year — gets out of his car. He walks over to McClane and says, “Wait right there. Wait. Wait… I have the right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
McClain, using earbuds, continued walking down the street as he carried a plastic bag and his phone. Within ten seconds, Woodyard had his hands on McClain and turned him around. As McClain tried to escape his grip, Woodyard said, “Relax, or I’ll have to change this position.”
Roedema then took the bag McClain was holding, which contained cans of iced tea, and threw it on the ground. McClain told him he would turn off the music he was listening to in order to let them go, demanding to be let go.
Then came a critical moment that made the situation worse.
As Rosenblatt and Woodyard grabbed McClain’s arms and pulled him toward a grassy area, Roedema said, “He’s got your gun, buddy.” But this cannot be seen on body camera footage and has never been confirmed.
All three officers later told investigators that Roedema’s statement helped them bring McClain to the ground.
As the officers stopped him, one of them grabbed his neck, cutting off blood flow to the brain. Paramedics later arrived and gave him ketamine, which was legal at the time to give to people displaying erratic behavior.
Falling to the ground, McClain can be heard screaming in pain, apologizing, explaining himself and pleading with officers. He vomited and tried to explain himself – but the officers wouldn’t listen.
He said, “I was just going home… I’m an introvert and I’m different. Going home… I’m just different. I’m just different. That’s all.”
Later, when officers spoke to a supervisor about what had happened, McClain said: “You’re all phenomenal; you’re beautiful…I’m sorry.”
Three days later, McClain was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Since 2020, neck restraints for police have been banned in Colorado by the state’s Democratic-led Legislature. The state health department has also told paramedics not to administer ketamine to people suspected of having a condition associated with erratic behavior, known as excited delirium.
McClain’s death became a rallying cry for police reform supporters. They hope his death can be a watershed moment that will lead to meaningful reforms in policing and serve as a warning that police brutality will not be tolerated.
“If we just sit by and allow anyone to be killed under the guise of ‘protect and serve,’ we have failed exponentially,” said Candice Bailey, an Aurora police reform advocate. “Elijah McClain was a warning to the planet.”