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Two paramedics found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in connection with Elijah McClain’s death

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(AURORA, Colo.) — A jury found two Aurora, Colorado, paramedics charged in connection with the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain guilty on Friday of criminally negligent homicide.

Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper were accused of administering an excessive amount of ketamine to sedate McClain after an encounter with police on Aug. 24, 2019.

Cichuniec was also found guilty of assault in the second degree unlawful administration of drugs.

They were both acquitted of assault in the second degree with intent to cause bodily injury causing serious bodily injury.

Cooper was found not guilty of assault in the second degree unlawful administration of drugs.

They both pleaded not guilty to their charges.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said he was satisfied with the verdict and that more accountability was still needed.

“Elijah did nothing wrong that evening, his life mattered, and he should be here today. Accountability does not end with these trials,” Weiser said in a statement.

“Too many times, we have seen people die when officers unnecessarily escalate situations that don’t call for the use of force. We must continue our work to improve policing and emergency response and build trust between law enforcement, first responders, and the people they are sworn to protect. We must do all we can to prevent these tragedies,” Weiser added.

Ahead of the verdict being read on Friday, the judge noted that there have been “high emotions” in the case and urged people to use “proper courtroom decorum.”

McClain was confronted by police while walking home from a convenience store after a 911 caller told authorities they had seen someone “sketchy” in the area.

McClain was unarmed and wearing a ski mask at the time. His family says he had anemia, a blood condition that can make people feel cold more easily.

When officers arrived on the scene, they told McClain they had a right to stop him because he was “being suspicious.”

In police body camera footage, McClain can be heard telling police he was going home, and that “I have a right to go where I am going.”

Officer Nathan Woodyard placed McClain in a carotid hold and he and the other two officers on the scene moved McClain by force to the grass and restrained him.

When EMTs arrived at the scene, McClain was given a shot of 500 milligrams of ketamine for “rapid tranquilization in order to minimize time struggling,” according to department policy, and was loaded into an ambulance where he had a heart attack, according to investigators.

McClain’s cause of death, which was previously listed as “undetermined,” was listed in an amended autopsy report as “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.” The manner of death remained listed as “undetermined” as it was in the initial report.

He died on Aug. 30, 2019, three days after doctors pronounced him brain dead and he was removed from life support, officials said.

Former police officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and assault in the third degree in McClain’s death.

Two other officers, Jason Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard, were found not guilty on charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Rosenblatt was also acquitted on charges of assault in the second degree.

The prosecution argued that Cichuniec and Cooper failed to give McClain adequate medical assessments before administering the ketamine when they arrived at the scene.

“Didn’t ask the police a question about it. Didn’t speak a single word to him. Didn’t get a piece of equipment out of the bag. Didn’t kneel down to look at him. Didn’t lean over to look at him. Didn’t put a single finger on him. Didn’t take a single vital sign,” a prosecutor said in closing arguments.

“They knew nothing. They learned nothing. They asked no questions. They didn’t care,” the prosecutor added.

The prosecution took issue with the assessment that McClain needed ketamine because he was suffering from “excited delirium” — which is characterized by the FBI as a “potentially deadly medical condition involving psychotic behavior, elevated temperature, and an extreme fight-or-flight response by the nervous system.”

Sheenen McClain told ABC News in a statement Friday ahead of the verdict being reached that there was no excuse for the lack of accountability by the paramedics.

“No amount of procedures, practices, protocols, or the lack of training for service jobs will ever replace the human heart. I am sure that if Elijah had been one of their children, family members, friends, or comrades, they would not have been so indifferent to what was happening, like they were with my son,” Sheenen McClain said in the statement.

She added, “We are supposed to do better if we know how to do better, so there is no excuse for the lack of accountability in their collective actions.”

In recent years, particularly after McClain’s death, medical organizations such as the American Medical Association have begun to reject the use of this diagnosis.

“Elijah is on the ground, barely moving. He does not need to have struggling, minimized,” prosecutors said. “There was not one reason that the defendants needed to make any one of these terrible decisions. There was no justification not to assess Mr. McClain. There was no justification to give someone who is not moving a sedative. There is no justification to ignore a lifeless patient for six minutes before you try to take his pulse.”

McClain weighed 143 pounds, but was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for someone his size and overdosed, according to Adams County coroner’s office pathologist Stephen Cina.

Cooper’s defense attorney argued there is a lack of protocol for the situation these paramedics found themselves in, citing the aggravated police presence, the way paramedics say they had to estimate McClain’s weight with police on top of him, the way to determine who had authority at the scene, and the protocols to accurately assess if a patient is suffering from excited delirium.

“There were a lot of systemic problems with both law enforcement, the practice of medicine — the practice of paramedic medicine — that needed to be fixed,” Cooper’s defense attorney said before highlighting that police were dispatched on nothing more than someone saying someone else looked sketchy.

“There is no protocol in effect in August 2019 that tells paramedics: ‘What do you do when police are all over a potential patient.’ How do you deal with that? There’s been no training there’s-no protocol,” the defense said.

The defense also addressed the six minutes in which paramedics neglected to check McClain for a pulse following the ketamine injection, arguing that McClain was still in the hands of officers on the scene.

“Six anxious minutes for that. Six excruciating for Mr. McClain — who was still being manhandled and restrained by not one, not two, three officers,” the defense said.

In closing, the prosecution cited several medical experts who testified that it was ketamine that killed McClain. The defense argued that expert testimony lacked proof that ketamine alone caused McClain’s death beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Seeing the video of getting the ketamine and two minutes later, his condition. I believe the ketamine administration was the most important factor into his cardiopulmonary arrest,” said Cina in his testimony.

He performed the autopsy on McClain and wrote the autopsy report where he determined McClain’s cause of death as “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.”

He also said in his testimony: “Being that there is the other variable of the restraint occurring before the ketamine administration, I can’t say for sure that it didn’t affect him somehow, that he reacted towards the ketamine differently than he normally would have.”

In the final rebuttal, the prosecution reiterated the emotional pleas heard from McClain obtained from police body camera footage during his confrontation with police.

“Mr. McClain screams out, ‘Stop. Please.’ While the defendant is supposedly conducting this rigorous visual assessment,” the prosecution said. “And then while he’s supposedly conducting this rigorous visual assessment of his patient, Elijah McClain utters his last words on Earth. ‘Please. Help me."”

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