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28th Jun 2020

The killing of Elijah McClain: here’s what you should know

Anna Daly

Elijah McClain

The governor of Colorado has ordered a proper investigation of the case.

On August 24, 2019, 23-year-old Elijah McClain was stopped by police on his way home from buying iced tea at his local convenience store. The altercation that followed left him brain dead. He died on August 30 when his family took him off life support. To date, no one has been charged for his death and all officers were cleared of wrongdoing. Here’s what you need to know.

Night of the incident

According to McClain’s family, Elijah had made a quick trip to the local convenience store to pick up iced tea for a member of his family. He was wearing an open-faced ski mask because, as his sister explained, “he had anaemia and would sometimes get cold.”

Around 10:30pm that night, the Aurora Police department received a call about a “suspicious person” wearing a ski mask. The police department dispatched three officers – Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema – to the scene. They claim that the unarmed McClain resisted contact and continued walking down the street.

When the officers confronted him, McClain said: “Let me go. I am an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking.” A struggle ensued and the officers claim that McClain attempted to grab one of their holstered guns.

They brought him to the ground “as quickly as possible” and put him in a carotid hold. They then handcuffed him and placed him into a specialised control hold, pressing against his neck artery. McClain fainted.

When he came to again, McClain proceeded to vomit and cry, pleading with the officers. He said: “I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting … I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.”

An officer tells McClain: “If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out and he’s going to dog bite you, you understand me?”

Due to McClain’s agitated mental state and because of the physical force applied when restraining him, officers called Aurora First Responders to the scene. They administered a “therapeutic” amount of ketamine to sedate him. McClain was taken to hospital and, on the way, he went into cardiac arrest twice.

Elijah McClain was pronounced brain dead on August 27, 2020, and died three days later.

Coroner’s findings and aftermath

The coroner’s report on the death listed McClain’s cause of death as undetermined, but points out haemorrhaging in his neck and abrasions on his body. The report stated:

“The decedent was violently struggling with officers who were attempting to restrain him. Most likely the decedent’s physical exertion contributed to death. It is unclear if the officer’s action contributed as well.”

In early November, The Adams County Coroner announced that it wasn’t clear whether McClain’s death had been an accident, a carotid hold-related homicide, or the result of natural causes.

The family’s attorney, Mari Newman, responded to the announcement, saying: “whatever the report says, it’s clear that if the police had not attacked Elijah McClain, he would be alive today.”

The officers involved in the case were placed on administrative leave following the incident. However, on November 22, Adams County prosecutors announced that they would not bring charges against the officers and the three returned to normal duty.

There was body-cam footage of the scene, however all of the officers’ body-cams allegedly fell off during the arrest so visual footage of the protocol cannot be seen for a large portion of the interaction. Around the 15:35 minute mark, an officer seems to say “leave you camera there”.

Recent attention

McClain’s death did not receive widespread press attention at the time. However, in the recent weeks following the death of George Floyd, McClain’s case has been brought back into the public eye.

A petition has been started, demanding “Justice for Elijah McClain” and has garnered nearly 4 million signatures. District Attorney Dave Young’s office has received thousands of emails and calls demanding justice, and hundreds of complaints have been filed with the police department.

Young said that he has no intention of reconsidering the case. However, City Manager Jim Twombly agreed on June 9 to undertake an independent investigation on McClain’s death, following Aurora lawmakers’ requests. In an email to Twombly, council members Allison Hiltz, Curtis Gardner, and Angela Lawson said:

“We have watched the events over the last several days and it has become clear that public trust has been eroded. We know that the status quo is no longer acceptable in our criminal justice system. Our community has experienced pain and as leaders it is our responsibility to take the first step in restoring public trust.”

On June 9, Aurora interim police chief Vanessa Wilson announced that officers would be banned from using carotid holds, and obligated to intervene when they see another officer use excessive force. They will also have to declare their intention to shoot before firing their guns.

On June 25, the governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, signed an executive order that appointed the state’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, to investigate the case and, if the facts support prosecution, “criminally prosecute any individuals whose actions caused the death of Elijah McClain”

The governor released a statement on the topic:

“I was moved by speaking with Elijah’s mother and her description of her son as a responsible and curious child who became a vegetarian to be healthier, and who could inspire the darkest soul. His friends describe him as a gentle peacemaker who worked as a massage therapist and enjoyed playing the violin. Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern.

Now more than ever, we must do everything within our power to foster public trust and confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. That’s why I have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the case, and it’s why earlier this month we took a step in the right direction by signing sweeping bipartisan police reform legislation into law that has now established significant new accountability for office-involved killings.

As a father, my heart breaks for the McClain family. All Coloradans should be safe walking home from the convenience store, or just being in their own neighborhoods listening to headphones. Unfortunately, I know that is not how many people – especially young people of color – feel in our state today, because I’ve heard it from them directly. We need to do a better job, and at a bare minimum they deserve a thorough review of the case.”

The city council will meet on July 6 for a vote to select a new independent investigator for the case.