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Elijah McClain's death caused by ketamine injection, amended autopsy report says

The 23-year-old Black man died a week after he was stopped by police in Colorado and sedated by paramedics.
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AURORA, Colo. — An amended autopsy report released Friday revealed Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died after a confrontation with police officers, died because he was injected with ketamine by paramedics after being forcibly restrained.

"I believe this tragic fatality is most likely the result of ketamine toxicity," the report said, adding McClain received a higher dosage of the sedative than he should have. "Simply put, this dosage of ketamine was too much for this individual and it resulted in an overdose."

The manner of McClain's death is undetermined, according to the amended report.

The original autopsy report, signed Nov. 7, 2019, said McClain's cause of death could not be determined, but new information that emerged during a grand jury investigation prompted the state attorney general's office to order a second autopsy.

"The opinions rendered were based on information available at that time. Since then, this office has received additional material for review including extensive body camera footage, witness statements, and additional records," the report said. "It is worth noting that these materials had been requested prior to release of the initial autopsy but the material was either not provided to us or not provided to us in their entirety."

The amended report comes one month after Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that two police officers, one former officer and two paramedics in the Denver suburb of Aurora had been indicted and would be charged with one count each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, among other allegations in the 32-count indictment.

Officers responding to a call about a suspicious person put McClain, a massage therapist, in a chokehold and paramedics later injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative, on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, after McClain had bought iced tea at a corner store, authorities said. He died about a week later.

Although not unheard of, changing an official cause of death is rare, said Ian Farrell, an associate law professor at the University of Denver.

“In order for there to be a second autopsy, you have to have some reason to think that there was a problem with the first one,” he said.

The five named in the indictment will be arraigned Nov. 4 in Adams County District Court, state officials said. They are Aurora Police Officers Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema; former Aurora officer Jason Rosenblatt; and paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec.

Weiser’s office declined to comment, and attorneys for the defendants could not be reached.

The new autopsy report was released to the public after Colorado Public Radio filed a lawsuit against the Adams County Coroner's Office for denying the news organization's request for a copy of the amended report.

Colorado-based media and First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Colorado Public Radio, said the new report could play a key role should the McClain case go to trial.

“The prosecution team will argue in court that the coroner’s office initially reached a conclusion that wasn’t initially well-informed,” he said. “The defendants will argue that the attorney general’s office persuaded or twisted the arm,” of the coroner’s office and that the original autopsy was accurate.

A demonstrator carries an image of Elijah McClain
A demonstrator carries an image of Elijah McClain during a rally in Aurora, Colo. on June 27, 2020.David Zalubowski / AP file

The original autopsy would not have made it impossible to get a conviction, but it presented a hurdle, said Farrell, who is not involved in the McClain case.

“I don’t think anyone can plausibly argue that if Mr. McClain had just been allowed to walk home that night, he would have died," he said. “So, at least in some sense, they (the defendants) caused his death by the things they did from a legal point of view.”

McClain had just come out of the store where he had bought iced tea when he was stopped by police responding to a call of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.

McClain usually wore a ski mask because of a blood condition that made him feel cold, according to his family.

The officers questioned him and then grabbed him when one of the officers thought McClain was reaching for a holstered gun.

Authorities said officers applied a carotid control hold on McClain, a type of chokehold meant to restrict blood to the brain to render a person unconscious.

Paramedics called to the scene injected McClain with ketamine to sedate him. Inside an ambulance about seven minutes later, McClain did not have a pulse and went into cardiac arrest, according to a report released later that year by then-District Attorney Dave Young. Medics were able to revive McClain, but he was declared brain dead and taken off life support less than a week later.

Deon J. Hampton reported from Colorado, Erik Ortiz reported from New York.