BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — Jurors convicted a Denver-area police officer of homicide Thursday and acquitted another of all charges in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was put in a neck hold, pinned to the ground and given an overdose of the sedative ketamine by paramedics.
Aurora police officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault by a 12-person jury. They found officer Jason Rosenblatt not guilty.
Roedema, who kept his head bowed after the verdict was read, faces up to three years in prison on the more serious homicide charge. Rosenblatt hugged his supporters as he walked out of court.
McClain’s mother listened to the verdict from the front row, where Attorney General Phil Weiser had his hand on her shoulder. Sheneen McClain held her right hand high in a raised fist as she left the courtroom. She expressed disappointment in the verdict.
“This is the divided states of America, and that’s what happens,” she said as she walked away from the court house.
McClain had been stopped by police following a suspicious person report as he walked home from a convenience store. His name became a rallying cry in protests over racial injustice in policing.
Roedema and Rosenblatt were charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault — all felonies. However, the jury as it went into deliberation was asked to consider a lesser form of assault for Roedema, the one he was found guilty of.
A third Aurora officer, who applied the neck hold, and two paramedics were indicted on similar charges, but the paramedics have more counts.
Roedema and another officer who was not charged held down McClain while paramedics administered the ketamine. Rosenblatt’s attorney had pointed out during the trial that he was not near McClain at that point in the confrontation.
Prosecutors alleged Rosenblatt held McClain’s legs when he was on the ground but stepped away shortly before the sedative was administered while Roedema held McClain’s shoulder and back. Roedema, the most senior of the three officers, was often visibile in the body camera footage shown over and over again to jurors. At times he seemed to be directing others what to do.
Attorneys for both defendants pointed to the ketamine as the cause of McClain’s death. Roedema’s attorney said the officers were forced to react when McClain resisted and allegedly reached for the gun of one of the officers, a claim prosecutors disputed.
Don Sisson, a defense lawyer for Roedema, has said officers had to act in the moment to protect themselves.
“They didn’t get to watch the video over and over and over for three weeks before they get to act,” he said Tuesday during closing statements.
As the split verdict was read, Roedema’s wife leaned forward in her seat with her head down as Rosenblatt’s wife patted her back. Sisson declined comment after the verdict was issued.
Judge Mark Warner set sentencing for January 5, 2024.
The three officers charged were the first on the scene and the ones who took McClain down to the ground.
At least three officers not charged were involved in restraining McClain at some point during the confrontation. One of them, officer Alicia Ward, testified as a prosecution witness that she held her knuckles to the back of McClain’s head and was prepared to apply pressure to it. But she said she didn’t feel like she needed to because she didn’t consider McClain a threat at that point.
The case initially did not receive widespread attention, but protests over the killing of George Floyd the following year sparked outrage over McClain’s death. His pleading words captured on body camera footage, “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” struck a chord.
A local prosecutor in 2019 decided against criminal charges because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how the 23-year-old massage therapist died. But Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office to take another look at the case in 2020, and the officers and paramedics were indicted in 2021 by a grand jury.
The killings of McClain, Floyd and others triggered a wave of legislation that put limits on the use of neck holds in more than two dozen states. Colorado now tells paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having a controversial condition known as excited delirium, which has symptoms including increased strength that has been associated with racial bias against Black men.
Aurora Police Chief Art Acevedo said the department respected the jury’s verdict, adding “we must be committed to the rule of law.”
Roedema and Rosenblatt did not testify in their defense at trial. Their attorneys blamed McClain’s death on the ketamine, which doctors said is what ultimately killed him.
However, prosecutors argued that the officers’ restraint of McClain contributed. Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber told jurors that Roedema and Rosenblatt also encouraged the paramedics to give McClain ketamine by describing him as having symptoms of excited delirium that they had learned about in training. But he said the officers did not tell them anything about McClain’s complaints that he could not breathe, something prosecutors said happened six times.
Sheneen McClain sat with attorneys for the state in the front row of the courtroom during the trial, part of her quest to remind the mostly white jury that her son was a real person. She watched the encounter being played over and over again along with graphic photos from his autopsy.
During testimony that stretched over three weeks, witnesses were limited to offering what they “perceived” someone to be doing or saying in the video. The video clips did not always provide a complete picture of what was happening, but Judge Mark Warner said the jurors were the only ones who could decide what they meant, just like any other piece of evidence.
McClain was stopped Aug. 24, 2019, while listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face. He asked to be left alone and had not been accused of committing any crime.
The encounter quickly escalated, with Officers Nathan 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 told investigators they took McClain down after hearing Roedema say to another officer, “He grabbed your gun dude.”
The initial statement was heard on the body camera footage but exactly what happened is difficult to see.
McClain went into cardiac arrest en route to the hospital and was pronounced dead three days later.
The doctor who performed McClain’s autopsy, Stephen Cina, has said he died of complications from the ketamine while also noting that occurred after the forcible restraint. However, Cina was not able to say if the death was a homicide or an accident or if the officers’ actions contributed to McClain’s death.
Dr. Roger Mitchell, another forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy and body camera video, found their actions did play a role. He labeled the death a homicide.