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A Colorado jury, consisting of 7 men and 5 women, mostly whites, arrived at a split decision where Randy Roedema, one of the five people convicted in the case, has been declared guilty on account of “criminally negligent homicide and a third-degree assault”. Mr. Roedema faces charges of four years in prison and will be sentenced in January. He would also have to pay a fine, as directed by the 12-person jury who mulled over the matter for 16 hours for 2 days before reaching the verdict.
However, Jason Rosenblatt, Roedema’s colleague who was tried together with him, and was charged with similar crimes including manslaughter, was acquitted. The acquittal has come as a shock to many, voiced out by Candice Bailey, an Aurora activist, who asks, “How do you convict one and acquit the other? How can you call this justice?”
Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man, died on 27th August 2019 after the Aurora police restrained him with a carotid chokehold. As paramedics arrived at the location, they injected him with ketamine, ignoring his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe”. He went into cardiac arrest as a result and died in the hospital after a few days.
His death has led to the organization of many protests across the US against the increasing police brutality and lack of accountability. Mr. McClain’s death was not pursued after two months as a local district attorney declined to press any charges after the coroner’s statement that the exact cause of the death could not be identified.
However, after the brutal murder of George Floyd in 2020 by a police officer in Minneapolis, the extent of police brutality was brought to the forefront for everybody to see, leading to a nationwide protest and resistance. Within weeks of the death of Mr. Floyd, the Colorado governor appointed a special prosecutor to investigate deeper into the death of Mr. McClain, leading to the identification of five people (3 police officers and 2 paramedics) criminally involved.
Who was Elijah McClain and how did he die?
Mr. McClain was a massage therapist and loved animals. Videos of him playing violin for stray cats have surfaced online as he believed that the music soothed them. On August 24, 2019, Mr. McClain was walking home from a convenience store when he was stopped by the police as he looked “sketchy”. According to the police officers, he was wearing a mask and was waving his arms and dancing which caught their attention.
Mr. McClain’s mother explained that he needed to wear a mask because he was anemic and the mask helped him to stay warm. Mr. McClain’s family and advocates of racial justice have been fighting for four years to hold the accused accountable and also to prevent any such killings in the future.
After an 18-minute confrontation, he was handcuffed and restrained to lie on the ground, where he vomited several times and constantly apologized for the same by saying “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that, I can’t breathe correctly”, as could be seen in some of the footage captured on the body footage camera. The officers conveniently stayed indifferent to his requests as they handcuffed him and sedated him with ketamine, which led Mr. McClain to lose consciousness.
In defense of the police officers, the prosecutors said such violence was used as Mr. McClain showed resistance and even reached for Mr. Rosenblatt’s gun. They have also argued that it was ketamine that caused Mr. McClain’s death and paramedics are the ones to be blamed.
What did the lawyers say?
On Thursday, Phil Weiser, Colorado’s attorney general, said that the verdict was about “accountability. Everyone is accountable and equal under the law.” In the autopsy reports, “a combination of factors” has been reported as a cause of Elijah’s death. Elijah had chronic asthma too. The reports have not clearly linked the physical exertion that contributed to McClain’s death with the violent struggle that took place between him and police officers.
Mari Newman, a representation of McClain’s family, has said that whatever the reports say, had police not attacked Elijah, he would have been alive today. “They immediately went hands-on and tackled him,” she added. The fact that the body cameras fell off from all three officers is something that raises suspicion as it gives them the liberty to construct whatever story they want. However, it was “excessive force” that led to his death.
An independent panel, along the lines of Newman’s argument, also said that it was the officers’ fault for using the kind of force they did without any justification. The amount of ketamine they used was enough to sedate a person weighing 190 pounds, whereas McClain weighed only 140 pounds. Even the use of a carotid hold escalated the amount of force exerted. The body camera footage also showed that McClain pleaded with the officers to let go of him as he is an introvert and they should respect his boundaries.
A police officer is heard saying that he is “crazy” and “definitely onto something” as they try to restrain him. One policeman said to Elijah that he would use “his dog on him if he did not stop messing around”. Sheneen McClain, the deceased’s mother, has said that all the five people accused in the case should be convicted as it was none of them “did their job right” and “worked as a team to murder my son”.
Harvey Steinberg, Mr. Rosenblatt’s lawyer, has said that his client was away from Mr. McClain when he was injected with ketamine, in an attempt to draw a distinction in his defense. Steinberg also called his client “a sacrificial lamb” as Rosenblatt was on the force for two years and had the least bit of experience. Mr. Roedema was fired from the force in 2020 following the incident. Defense lawyers have consistently been stating that officers were justified in using the extent of force they did because Elijah McClain did not stop after being called out for the first time and also showed resistance.