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Aurora paramedics tell jury they did everything they could to help Elijah McClain

Elijah McClain
Elijah McClain

The two Aurora paramedics charged in the death of Elijah McClain testified Monday that they did everything they could to help the 23-year-old during the fatal 2019 encounter, taking the stand in their own defenses during a joint jury trial in Adams County District Court.

The two men said they followed their training and protocols. But prosecutors on cross-examination poked holes in the paramedics’ depiction of their own actions, using body-worn camera footage, reports and earlier interviews to contradict several details in the men’s accounts.

Paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper are each charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault in connection with McClain’s death. Aurora police officers stopped, tackled and restrained the unarmed Black man as he walked home on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, after a teenage 911 caller reported McClain was wearing a ski mask and acting strange.

On the witness stand Monday, the two paramedics testified they believed McClain was suffering from excited delirium during the police encounter and that a dose of the sedative ketamine was the only possible treatment.

Excited delirium is a disputed condition that describes someone exhibiting extreme agitation to the point where they are a danger to themselves and others. Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board voted in December to strike the term from law enforcement training documents.

Prosecutors said the paramedics did not properly assess McClain, misdiagnosed him, overestimated his weight and ultimately gave him a significant overdose of ketamine, leading to his death. McClain stopped breathing in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and died after he was taken off life support on Aug. 30, 2019.

Cichuniec admitted on cross-examination that he and Cooper overestimated McClain’s weight and that the paramedics gave McClain a too-high dose of ketamine. Cichuniec said he was following his training — which was to give a general small, medium or large dose based on a patient’s size. He chose the largest dose, but McClain’s weight required only the smallest dose.

Cichuniec testified that he was concerned about giving McClain too little ketamine and didn’t think he had enough time to give a smaller dose, wait to see its effects, then call a doctor for permission to give more, as his training required.

“If we don’t work fast, he could die,” he testified. “…During our training, we were told numerous times that this is a safe, effective drug. …And ketamine is what is needed for excited delirium. That is the only drug we can carry that can stop what is going on and calm him down so we can control his airway, we can control him and the safety of him, get him to the hospital as quick as we can.”

But prosecutors sought to show that the paramedics wrongly concluded McClain was suffering from excited delirium. They pointed out that none of the paramedics asked McClain any questions that night — about how he was feeling, what was wrong, or even what his name was. None of the paramedics touched McClain until Cooper injected the ketamine, said Jason Slothouber, senior assistant attorney general.

Cooper testified that he did not ask McClain any questions because he was worried doing so would cause the police officers who were restraining McClain to be more violent.

“About the time I went to go do that, Elijah had just a little bit more of struggle or movement, and one of the officers picked him up and slammed him down to the ground, so I stopped,” Cooper testified. “…When I saw that, it was pretty shocking, so I told the officers, ‘OK, leave him here.’ That was my attempt to de-escalate things. They’re using violent control methods. That’s now harming Elijah, so that’s making my job more difficult.”

On cross-examination, Slothouber played body-worn camera footage that showed Cooper told officers to leave McClain on the ground before the officers body-slammed McClain.

Carotid hold and pleas for help

Both paramedics also testified that they did not hear Aurora police officers tell them that the officers had used a carotid hold on McClain — that is, that officers had squeezed McClain’s neck until he lost consciousness before paramedics arrived.

Cichuniec maintained that he did not hear it even after Slothouber played body-worn camera footage that showed him standing next to a police officer as the officer relayed the information.

In the video, Cichuniec is looking at the officer during the start of the conversation, then looks down at McClain as the officer mentions the carotid hold. Cichuniec testified that he heard the first part of the conversation but not the second half, during which the officer disclosed the dangerous carotid hold. Cooper offered a similar explanation.

“There were quite a few officers on scene, it was fairly hectic,” Cooper testified. “…So I’m getting bits and pieces from all these different officers. There’s obviously some things I missed.”

Both Cichuniec and Cooper testified that McClain was not making sense when he spoke that night. In response, Slothouber played body-worn camera footage that showed McClain repeatedly and coherently pleading with officers to stop hurting him.

“So all the clear statements Mr. McClain makes — ‘Ow,’ ‘Stop please,’ ‘I can’t fix myself,’ ‘Please help me’ — you don’t remember hearing any of those?” Slothouber asked Cooper.

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