AURORA, Colo. — Prosecutors for the state of Colorado laid responsibility for Elijah McClain’s death four years ago squarely on the shoulders of two Aurora police officers as their jury trial opened Wednesday, while the officers’ attorneys blamed city paramedics for the 23-year-old Black man’s killing.
Lawyers for both sides gave opening statements in the trial of Aurora police officer Randy Roedema, 41, and former officer Jason Rosenblatt, 34, who each is charged with reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault in connection with McClain’s 2019 death.
They are the first to stand trial of the five people indicted in 2021 over McClain’s death, a case that drew outrage from across the country after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and led to major protests in Colorado that summer.
Jury selection began Friday and ended Wednesday afternoon with a majority-white jury of 12 jurors and two alternates, evenly split with seven men and seven women.
McClain was walking home from a gas station in Aurora on Aug. 24, 2019 — wearing a black face mask as he often did — when a 17-year-old boy called 911 to report a suspicious person. Three responding officers detained McClain, violently forced him to the ground, used a carotid hold on him, and handcuffed him before a paramedic injected McClain with the sedative ketamine.
McClain, who pleaded with officers again and again that he could not breathe, suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, where he was later declared brain dead. He died Aug. 30, 2019.
During opening statements, prosecutor Jonathan Bunge outlined a series of errors he says the officers made during the encounter with McClain: the officers didn’t have reasonable suspicion to detain McClain, who had committed no crime; the officers didn’t listen to McClain and needlessly escalated the encounter; they shut off or put down their body-worn cameras; they used excessive force and dangerous carotid holds; they ignored McClain’s pleas that he could not breathe and needed help, and they failed to tell paramedics the truth about his condition.
“A 23-year-old healthy young man, just walking down the street, became a casualty of the very people sworn to protect,” Bunge told jurors.
He noted that McClain said “I can’t breathe” seven times before he lost consciousness.
Defense attorneys Reid Elkus and Harvey Steinberg argued that the officers followed the training and policies of the Aurora Police Department and should not be held responsible for McClain’s death. They said Rosenblatt, Roedema and the third officer at the scene, Nathan Woodyard, who each outweighed McClain by at least 40 pounds, could not control McClain and used only necessary force to subdue him.
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