Show caption Mourners visit a mural of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died after an encounter with police officers, in Denver, Colorado. Photograph: Kevin Mohatt/Reuters Elijah McClain Elijah McClain: Colorado grand jury indicts five over Black man’s death • Attorney general: three police and two paramedics face charges • 23-year-old died after being stopped on suburban Denver street Guardian staff and agencies Wed 1 Sep 2021 22.46 BST Share on Facebook
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Colorado’s attorney general said on Wednesday that a grand jury had indicted three police officers and two paramedics in the killing of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was put in a chokehold and injected with a powerful sedative two years ago in suburban Denver.
The 23-year-old’s death gained more widespread attention during last year’s protests against racial injustice and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
McClain’s pleading words that were captured on police body-camera video – “I’m just different” – have been posted on signs at protests and spoken by celebrities who have joined those calling for the prosecution of the officers who confronted McClain as he walked down the street in the city of Aurora after a 911 caller reported he looked suspicious.
McClain, a massage therapist whom loved ones described as a gentle and kind introvert who nevertheless wanted to “change the world”, was also a music lover who volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter.
The attorney general, Phil Weiser, said all five officers and paramedics were charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, and some face additional charges.
Facing pressure during a nationwide uprising for racial justice and an end to such egregious killings, the Democratic governor, Jared Polis, ordered Weiser in June 2020 to open a new criminal investigation.
“What I set out to do is still not over, but I’m halfway there. I’m halfway there,” McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, told the Associated Press of her efforts to hold police accountable.
The Aurora police chief, Vanessa Wilson, who took over last year and has pledged to work to restore public trust, said the department will continue to cooperate with the judicial process. “I know this has been a long-awaited decision for Ms McClain and her family. This tragedy will forever be imprinted on our community,” she said in a statement.
A district attorney had said in 2019 that he could not charge the officers because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died.
McClain went into a coma after he was stopped in the street by police in August 2019 as he walked home from a convenience store where he was buying iced teas. While being held, he was injected with a large amount of the sedative agent ketamine by paramedics.
In January, Weiser announced that he had opened a grand jury investigation, noting that grand juries have the power to compel testimony and documents that would otherwise be unavailable.
Elijah McClain. Photograph: Family Photo/Reuters
It was one of several investigations prompted at least in part by McClain’s death, including separate reviews of McClain’s arrest commissioned by the city of Aurora and a comprehensive review of the police department.
The attorney general’s office is also conducting a civil rights investigation into the agency, the first under a new police accountability law in Colorado.
Aurora’s highly critical review did not find any evidence to justify officers stopping McClain as he walked home from the store, after a 911 caller had reported a man wearing a ski mask and waving his hands who seemed “sketchy”.
His family said McClain wore the mask because he had anemia, which caused him to get cold easily.
Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain on the sidewalk and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
In the video, the officer puts his hand on McClain’s shoulder and turns him around and repeats: “Stop tensing up.”
As McClain verbally protests, the officer says: “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
As the other officers join in to restrain McClain, he asks them to let go and says: “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”
Police body cameras did not capture exactly what happened next, but McClain can be heard trying to explain himself and sometimes crying out or sobbing. He says he can’t breathe and was just on his way home.
“I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me? I don’t do guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat … I am a vegetarian,” he said.
One officer eventually retrieves his camera, which shows McClain handcuffed, lying on his side and periodically vomiting as another officer leans on him. An officer who arrived later threatened to get his police dog to bite McClain.
Paramedics arrived and injected McClain with 500mg of ketamine – more than 1.5 times the dose for his weight.
Within five minutes, according to a federal lawsuit from McClain’s family, he stopped breathing. He died six days later after being declared brain dead and taken off life support.
Three Aurora officers, including one involved in the encounter with McClain, were fired and one resigned last year over photos mimicking the chokehold used on the 23-year-old.