Paramedic Sentenced to Five Years in Death of Elijah McClain

A Colorado paramedic convicted in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young Black man whose case helped drive the national police reform movement, was sentenced on Friday to five years in prison.

The case was a rare criminal prosecution of emergency medical personnel, and stirred outrage among paramedics and firefighters across the nation who worry that urgent decisions made as part of their jobs can be criminalized.

The paramedic, Peter Cichuniec, 51, a former lieutenant with Aurora Fire Rescue, was convicted in December of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault for the unlawful administration of drugs. He was one of five police officers and paramedics prosecuted in state district court over three consecutive trials.

A second paramedic and a police officer were also convicted. In January, Randy Roedema, 41, a lieutenant in the Aurora Police Department officer at the time, was sentenced to 14 months in a county jail. Jeremy Cooper, the paramedic working with Mr. Cichuniec, is scheduled to be sentenced in April.

In a courtroom packed with Mr. Cichuniec’s family and dozens of firefighters from across the country, District Judge Mark Douglas Warner said he took many variables into consideration, including praise for Mr. Cichuniec’s character from those who knew him, weighed against the “death of a young man who is simply walking home from a convenience store.”

During more than an hour of character statements, family members, friends and colleagues testified that Mr. Cichuniec was a compassionate man and skilled leader with a “servant’s heart” who was emotionally wrecked by the death of Mr. McClain.

Handcuffed and wearing his striped inmate’s uniform, Mr. Cichuniec began his request for leniency by saying he had taken an oath 18 years ago to put other people’s lives before his own. “I wish I could look Ms. McClain in the eye and tell her that Elijah would be OK,” he said, adding his the young man’s death destroyed him as a person, a father and a parent. “I am sorry that Elijah McClain is no longer with us.”

The judge also heard an impassioned statement from Mr. McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, who said her son’s death was not a terrible tragedy but an avoidable murder. She said she thought of firefighters as “local heroes” until “I watched them murder my son,” she said.

She said the paramedics “did not save him” and “felt no need to stop the brutality.”

Ms. McClain emerged from the courtroom with her fist raised, and had no further comment.

Mr. Cichuniec was facing up to 16 years in prison, and the sentence he received was the most lenient based on mandatory sentencing guidelines. The judged added another year on a separate charge, to be served at the same time as the five-year sentence.

The convictions of the two paramedics shook the world of emergency workers who have typically been shielded from criminal prosecution — and it forced questions about the dynamic between the police and paramedics at a scene.

In August 2019, Mr. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was returning home from a store when he was confronted by police who were responding to a 911 call about a suspicious person. During a quickly escalating encounter, Mr. McClain was forcefully restrained by police and placed in a carotid chokehold, a neck restraint that has since been banned in Aurora and other police departments. Paramedics then injected him with an overdose of the powerful sedative ketamine. He died in a hospital several days later.

In three separate trials, prosecutors collectively argued the excessive force of police officers and the indifference of paramedics both played a role in killing Mr. McClain.

Though Mr. McClain was visibly distressed and in handcuffs, paramedics never spoke to him, touched him or checked his vital signs before diagnosing him with excited delirium, a controversial condition characterized by agitation and exceptional physical strength. Paramedics then injected him with what authorities later said was a dose of ketamine inappropriate for Mr. McClain’s body weight.

Lawyers representing both paramedics argued they followed protocol and should not have been held criminally responsible for making a split-second decision based on incomplete or inaccurate information from the police.

An 18-year veteran with the fire department and father of two, Mr. Cichuniec was the senior paramedic at the scene. Neither Mr. Cichuniec nor Mr. Cooper had ever administered the drug before treating Mr. McClain.

After the paramedics were convicted in December, the Aurora fire department took steps to lessen their paramedics’ exposure to criminal liability. And the department allowed paramedics the option of limiting their responsibilities and the medications they can administer. This means the department has fewer medical professionals who can perform advanced life-saving measures, said Dawn Small, a spokesperson for the department.

Aurora’s Fire Chief, Alec Oughton, said he worried that the threat of criminal prosecution may drive paramedics from the profession altogether and make communities less safe. “This exodus would be devastating to the department and could leave Aurora in a position where its fire department does not have adequate staffing levels to protect the community,” Mr. Oughton wrote in an email statement.

Ed Kelly, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the largest firefighters union in the country, said some of its members have opted to retire or surrender their paramedic license because of the McClain case.

“It’s scared the hell out of paramedics,” said Mr. Kelly, whose organization represents more than 340,000 firefighters.

On Friday, Mr. Kelly traveled from Boston to Colorado to attend the sentencing. “Now they have to question whether or not they’re going to go to jail on split-second decisions that they are making in the streets,” he said.

After the sentencing, Mr. Kelly said, “Elijah McClain should be alive today; the circumstances that led to his death are awful, but at the end of the day these firefighters aren’t criminals. They didn’t kill him and they shouldn’t be going to jail.”

Community activists were disappointed by what they viewed as a light sentence.

“Anything less than the 16 years is simply an unfair price to pay for Elijah’s life,” said Thomas Mayes, an Aurora pastor who has helped organize protests after Mr. McClain’s death.

MiDian Holmes, a social justice activist who has followed the trials closely, said five years in prison showed that “the minimum is the only thing that we can be afforded when it comes to justice.”

In the aftermath of Mr. McClain’s death, several states, including Colorado, banned or restricted use of ketamine by paramedics. In some fire departments where the sedative is still used, a comprehensive assessment of the patient is now required. Many departments are also considering policy changes to clarify the relationship between the police and paramedics, and emphasizing that medical decisions should not be influenced by police officers.

James G. Hodge, law professor and director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, said departments since the paramedic conviction were exploring “in real time” what the relationship between the police and paramedics should look like when someone in police custody becomes a patient of the paramedics. The conviction, he said, “was a game changer.”

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