Elijah McClain died after a police stop and ketamine injection. Now, 2 officers are on trial

A trial is opening soon against two police officers charged in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.
Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 4:02 PM MDT
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BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — The trial of two suburban Denver police officers was set to open Wednesday in the killing of Elijah McClain, a Black man put in a neck hold and injected with a powerful sedative whose 2019 death later became a rallying cry for nationwide protests and spurred police reform in Colorado.

It’s the first of several trials stemming from the death of McClain, and lawyers for the two sides are expected to paint contrasting pictures of the deadly struggle between the officers and the 23-year-old massage therapist. McClain was stopped by police in the city of Aurora while walking home from a convenience store carrying only a plastic bag and his phone.

One question jurors could be asked to decide is whether it was lawful for officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt to detain and use force against McClain, who a 911 caller reported as suspicious. If prosecutors can convince jurors the stop was unjustified, that would undermine any argument that McClain’s injuries were a result of the officers just doing their jobs.

Defendant Jason Rosenblatt walks into the Adams County Justice Center for the start of a trial...
Defendant Jason Rosenblatt walks into the Adams County Justice Center for the start of a trial of two of the police officers charged in the death of Elijah McClain, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Brighton Colo. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)(Jack Dempsey | AP)

Officials eventually determined the sedative ketamine played a key role in McClain’s death, which fueled renewed scrutiny about the use of ketamine for people considered to be acting erratically and led Colorado’s health department limit when emergency workers can administer it. In 2020, neck holds by police were banned by the state’s Democratic-led Legislature.

The jury pool was narrowed to 12 jurors and two alternates Wednesday. Before their selection could be finalized, Judge Mark Warner said legal issues had arisen that needed to be addressed. The judge wanted to talk behind closed doors with attorneys for both sides as well as a man who the defense struck from the jury pool after he said he’d been racially profiled about a half dozen times by police, including in Aurora.

Defendant Randy Roedema walks into the Adams County Justice Center for the start of the Elijah...
Defendant Randy Roedema walks into the Adams County Justice Center for the start of the Elijah McClain trial Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Brighton, Colo. The trial is expected to open soon against two police officers charged in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was forcibly detained while walking down a street near Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)(Jack Dempsey | AP)

The jury pool appeared to be mostly white. Other potential jurors who were removed included a woman who identified herself as Hispanic and said her husband was singled out for arrest in a conflict with white people. Prosecutors removed a possible jury members including the daughter of a police officer who said officers aren’t being supported by society and a former EMT who witnessed people being given ketamine.

Roedema and Rosenblatt are both charged with criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter and assault. They have pleaded not guilty but have never spoken publicly about the allegations against them. The trial is expected to last about a month. A third officer and two paramedics are charged in McClain’s death and are scheduled for trial later this year.

Charges were not brought for two years after McClain died, by which time a national reckoning had begun over racial injustice in American policing following the murder of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis. Police body camera captured McClain pleading with the officers, saying “I’m an introvert” and “I’m just different,” and telling them “I’m sorry.”

In 2019, a local district attorney, Dave Young, called McClain’s death “tragic” but decided against prosecuting the officers largely because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died.

A revised coroner’s report was issued in 2021, relying in part on information from a grand jury investigation. It found the cause of death was complications from ketamine after McClain, who weighed 140 pounds (64 kilograms), overdosed because he received a higher dose than recommended for someone of his size, pathologist Stephen Cina found.

“I believe that Mr. McClain would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine,” Cina said.

Cina said he couldn’t rule out whether the stress of being held down by the officers may have contributed to McClain’s death.

Police stopped McClain on Aug. 24, 2019, after a 911 caller reported a man who seemed “sketchy.” McClain, who was often cold, was wearing a ski mask and a jacket despite the warm weather.

Officer Nathan Woodyard, who is set to go on trial later this year, was the first to approach McClain and was soon joined by Roedema and Rosenblatt.

McClain, using earbuds, initially kept walking. Within 10 seconds, Woodyard put his hands on McClain, turning him around. As McClain tried to escape his grip, Woodyard said, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”

The encounter quickly escalated, with officers taking him to the ground and putting him in a neck hold before paramedics arrived and injected him with ketamine. McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. He was pronounced dead three days later.