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Paramedic Avoids Prison in Death of Elijah McClain

A Colorado paramedic convicted in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, an unarmed young black man, was sentenced Friday to four years of probation with 14 months of release, the latest chapter in an explosive case that has plunged the Denver suburb of Aurora. on the national stage and helped initiate radical reforms in public safety.

Jeremy Cooper, 49, a former Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic, was convicted in December of criminally negligent homicide. A second paramedic, Peter Cichuniec, 51, a former lieutenant with the department, was sentenced last month to five years in prison.

Judge Mark Douglas Warner of the 17th Judicial District Court said neither the jury nor the court saw evidence that Mr. Cooper intentionally gave Mr. McClain an overdose, although his actions deviated from the standard of care. “The way things happened is almost unthinkable,” he said, later adding: “It wasn’t necessary.”

In a rare criminal prosecution of emergency personnel, the convictions called into question the role paramedics play during confrontations with police. Mr Cooper, Mr Cichuniec and three police officers were prosecuted in the district court in three consecutive trials last year. Randy Roedema, a former Aurora police officer, was sentenced to 14 months of work release in a county jail.

Elijah McClain died days after being restrained by three police officers and injected with ketamine in August 2019.Credit…Family photo, via Reuters

During the encounter, Mr. Cooper injected Mr. McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative, while he was in police custody – and after officers forcibly subdued him and placed him in restraints cervical. Mr McClain suffered a cardiac arrest and died in hospital a few days later.

At the start of the hearing, family, friends and colleagues testified about Mr. Cooper’s character, describing him as a highly decorated professional who cared for his patients with compassion and empathy and did his best to save lives by Mr. McClain. Through tears, his wife, Tarrah Cooper, said the father of three was a born caregiver and “a part of his soul died” when he learned he could no longer be a paramedic.

Next, Mr. Cooper directed his comments to Mr. McClain: “First of all, I want you to know how sorry I am that I couldn’t save you,” he said, holding back tears. . As Mr. Cooper spoke, Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, and several activists left the courtroom. He vowed to spend the rest of his life trying to “learn and grow” and “understand the why” of Mr. McClain’s death.

Ms. McClain, who regularly attended the trial and sentencing hearings, said that as she watched the videos of the police stops repeatedly, she wondered why none of the police officers and paramedics did “the good thing “.

“Jeremy Cooper was a threat to my son and an accomplice to my son’s murder,” she said. At one point, Ms. McClain was overcome with emotion. She closed her speech by raising her hand in the air: “From my heart to my hands, long live Elijah McClain always and forever. »

In suggesting that Mr. Cooper be incarcerated, Jason Slothouber, the state’s attorney, said that Mr. Cooper had not taken responsibility for his actions, yet was the person most responsible for the death of Mr. McClain.

Phil Weiser, Colorado’s attorney general, said there was much that officers and paramedics could have done on the night of August 24, 2019, to prevent Mr. McClain’s death.

“Today’s sentencing marks the end of a very long chapter,” he said in a statement. “With this sentence, we now have accountability for another defendant who failed to act in accordance with the law, and we have a measure of justice for Elijah McClain, his family and loved ones.” But true justice would be for Elijah to be alive today. »

Community activists, who had led rallies and protests demanding accountability in the case, were disheartened by Mr. Cooper’s conviction.

“The American justice system has proven itself broken,” said Hashim Coates, a community activist. “I guess you could say that the fact that we’re here is a step away from black lives, but other than that it’s business as usual.”

Mr. McClain, 23, was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora on August 24, 2019, when he was stopped by police after a 911 caller described Mr. McClain as “sketchy.” He waved his arms, danced and wore a mask, which his mother said he did because he was anemic and needed to stay warm. Although he was not suspected of committing any crime, Mr. McClain was arrested by police. During an escalating 18-minute standoff, he was arrested and handcuffed while pleading for his life, and his condition quickly deteriorated.

Paramedics never spoke to Mr. McClain, touched him or checked his vital signs before diagnosing him with excited delirium, a controversial diagnosis. Then they injected him with what authorities said was an excessive amount of ketamine for Mr. McClain’s weight. During three separate trials, prosecutors argued that excessive force by police and reckless medical decisions by paramedics collectively killed Mr. McClain.

Spanning nearly five years, the case shook and divided the city of Aurora and its embattled police force. Social justice activists who have long accused the force of brutality and racism against Aurora’s black community.

The life and death of Mr McClain – described by his friends as a gentle massage therapist, violinist and animal lover – were among the most intensely followed stories during the 2020 social justice protests that followed George’s death Floyd. Subsequently, local and state investigations helped spur policy changes within police and fire departments, including banning chokeholds and limiting the use of ketamine. The two departments were also subject to a five-year agreement by executive order aimed at improving performance, reducing bias and restoring public trust.

After the paramedics’ joint convictions in December, Aurora Fire Rescue gave its paramedics the option to limit their emergency medical services to reduce their exposure to criminal liability. Since this option became available in December, 28 of 239 paramedics – or almost 12 percent – ​​have requested these limited duties. Two of the paramedics made their decision after Mr. Cichuniec’s conviction.

Aurora Fire Chief Alec Oughton said that while Mr. McClain’s death was tragic, the convictions essentially criminalized emergency medical care in the field.

“Now doctors fear malicious or criminal culpability if they make split-second discretionary decisions while providing this care,” he said.

Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora NAACP, said both departments have improved training for new police officers and firefighters.

“Unfortunately, we have had to come to this as a result of the tragedy and murder of Elijah McClain,” Mr. Montgomery said. “We are well on our way to having a model of public safety that our state can be proud of, that our residents can be proud of, and that we hope the community they serve will certainly be proud of.” But there is still work to be done. »

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jack colman

With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class. After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim. Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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