Paramedic sentenced to five years for death of Elijah McClain


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

The case was a rare criminal prosecution against emergency medical personnel and sparked outrage among paramedics and firefighters across the country, who fear urgent decisions made as part of their job could be criminalized.

Paramedic Peter Cichuniec, 51, a former Aurora Fire Rescue lieutenant, was found guilty in December of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault by unlawful administration of drugs. He was one of five police officers and paramedics prosecuted in state district court during three consecutive trials.

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

In a courtroom filled with Cichuniec’s relatives and dozens of firefighters from around the country, District Judge Mark Douglas Warner said he took into consideration many variables, including the praise of Cichuniec’s character from those who knew him, compared to the ” death of a young man simply walking home from a convenience store.”

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

Handcuffed and dressed in his striped inmate uniform, Cichuniec began his plea for leniency by saying he had sworn 18 years ago to put other people’s lives before his own. “I wish I could look Mrs. McClain in the eyes and tell her that Elijah would be okay,” he said, adding that the young man’s death destroyed him as a person, as a parent and as 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 a preventable murder. She said she thought of firefighters as “local heroes” until “I saw them murder my son,” she said.

He said the paramedics “did not save him” and “did not feel the need to stop the brutality.”

Ms. McClain left the courtroom with her fist raised and He had no further comments.

Mr. Cichuniec faced up to 16 years in prison and the sentence he received was the most lenient under mandatory sentencing guidelines. The judge added an additional year for a separate charge, which will 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 normally been protected from criminal prosecution, and forced questions about the dynamics between police and paramedics at a scene.

In August 2019, McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was returning home from a store when he was confronted by police responding to a 911 call about a suspicious person. During a rapidly escalating encounter, McClain was forcibly 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 that excessive force by police officers and indifference by paramedics played a role in Mr. McClain’s murder.

Although Mr. McClain was visibly distressed and handcuffed, 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 an inappropriate dose of ketamine for Mr. McClain’s body weight.

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

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

After the paramedics were convicted in December, the Aurora Fire Department took steps to reduce its paramedics’ exposure to criminal liability. And the department allowed paramedics the option to limit their responsibilities and the medications they can administer. This means the department has fewer medical professionals who can perform advanced life-saving measures, said department spokeswoman Dawn Small.

Aurora Fire Chief Alec Oughton said he was concerned that the threat of criminal prosecution could drive paramedics out of the profession entirely and make communities less safe. “This exodus would be devastating for the department and could leave Aurora in a position where its fire department is not adequately staffed to protect the community,” Oughton wrote in an email statement.

Ed Kelly, president of the International Association of Firefighters, the nation’s largest firefighters union, said some of his members chose to retire or give up their paramedic license because of the McClain case.

“This scares the hell out of paramedics,” said Kelly, whose organization represents more than 340,000 firefighters.

On Friday, Kelly traveled from Boston to Colorado to attend the sentencing. “Now they have to wonder whether or not they’re going to go to jail for split-second decisions they make on the streets,” she said.

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

Community activists were disappointed by what they considered a light sentence.

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

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

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

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

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