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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Paramedic Gets 5 Years in Death of Cop-Restrained Black Man

Updated: Mar 5

Elijah McClain (February 25, 1996 – August 30, 2019)

 

A judge in Colorado sentenced former Aurora paramedic Peter Cichuniec to five years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence, for his role in the killing of Elijah McClain, a young black man, detained by the police, reported The Denver Post (March 1).


The death of McClain, as of George Floyd and many African Americans, helped drive a police reform movement.

 

In the McClain case, a jury in December had found both Cichuniec, 51, and fellow paramedic Jeremy Cooper guilty of criminally negligent homicide in McClain’s death in 2019. Cichuniec also was convicted of assault by drugging, which carried an additional sentence for causing serious injury or death. Cooper is scheduled to be sentenced on April 26. Both men were fired after their convictions.

 

Judge Mark Warner, of Colorado’s 17th Judicial District, sentenced Cichuniec to five years on the assault conviction and one year, to be served concurrently, on the homicide conviction. Cichuniec received 70 days of pre-sentencing credit because he has been in custody since the verdict.

 

“It is impossible to un-remember the video and images of Elijah McClain’s suffering in the last minutes of his young life,” Warner said as he imposed the sentencing.

 

Paramedic Peter Cichuniec said he was “very sorry that Elijah is no longer with us, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart”.   (Photo by David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

 

Judge Warner noted that Cichuniec was the highest-ranking paramedic on the scene and that there was a “ill-defined transfer of command” between the different first-responders present, reported CNN (March 2).

 

Cichuniec oversaw Cooper as he injected McClain with an overdose of the sedative ketamine after police put the young man into a neck-hold, reported The Denver Post.

 

Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, had been stopped by police on August 24, 2019, in the City of Aurora, near Denver, when walking home alone from a convenience store, reported BBC News (September 1, 2021). He was carrying a plastic bag of iced tea, reported CNN (March 2).

 

The City of Aurora’s probe did not find any evidence to justify officers stopping McClain, after an emergency 911 caller reported a man wearing a ski mask and waving his hands who seemed “sketchy”. His family said that McClain wore the mask because he had anemia that caused him to get cold easily, according to The Associated Press (September 1, 2021).

 

Officers immediately took McClain to the ground, reported The Denver Post.

 

Paramedics arrived and injected the 140-pound (63.5-kilogram) man with 500 milligrams of ketamine, which is more than 1.5 times the dose for his weight, according to The Associated Press (September 1, 2021), and appropriate for a 200-pound man (90.7 kilograms), reported CNN (February 2). He suffered a heart attack on the way to the hospital, never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead after being removed from life support six days later.

 

The case had received little attention until protests over the May 2020 killing of George Floyd,  the 46-year-old African American who was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest made after a store clerk suspected that Floyd may have used a counterfeit 20-dollar bill, reported The Associated Press (December 23, 2023). After George Floyd’s murder, protests against police brutality toward black people quickly spread across the United States and globally.

 

In the McClain case, besides the two paramedics, three police officers also faced criminal indictments after a Colorado grand jury reached a different conclusion than earlier investigations, answering pleas for justice from thousands during protests, city council meetings and community forums, reported the Denver Post (September 1, 2021).

 

Paramedics Rarely Face Criminal Charges

 

Convictions of paramedics are rare. They sent shockwaves through the emergency medicine profession, with paramedics rethinking how to treat patients who are in police custody, according to The Denver Post.  Paramedics typically are considered local government agents protected by statutory immunities, where injury and death can occur even when they abide by their medical training, according to CNN (December 17, 2023).

 

On March 1, before Cichuniec’s sentencing, the paramedic, said in court that he was “very sorry that Elijah is no longer with us, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart”, according to CNN (March 2).

 

“I wish that I could look into Ms. McClain’s eyes and tell her Elijah would be OK,” Cichuniec said before he was sentenced, according to The Denver Post. “I can’t. And that destroys me as a person, as a father and as a paramedic.”

 

Cichuniec cried while speaking in Adams County District Court and apologized for McClain’s death. He also defended his actions that night, saying that he had to make quick decisions without the full picture and did the best he could.

 

McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, said that she wanted Cichuniec to be held accountable for her son’s death.

 

“My son’s murder was 100 percent avoidable,” she said, in court. “. . . I have righteous anger toward those who made sure my son did not live to see another day, when they could have done better.”

 

More than 100 people submitted letters of support for Cichuniec to the judge, and several spoke on his behalf in court, describing the paramedic as a dedicated public servant, family man, and a compassionate and capable leader.

 

After the sentencing, Edward Kelly, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters union, told reporters that the criminal prosecution has had a chilling effect on the paramedic profession, a sentiment that was echoed by several of Cichuniec’s supporters in court.

 

“Peter Cichuniec is not a criminal, and he should not be on his way to jail right now,” said Kelly.

 

David Goddard, Cichuniec’s attorney, said that the case already has deterred paramedics from taking similar actions as the convictions have reverberated across the profession, and so a minimum prison sentence was appropriate for Cichuniec, reported The Denver Post.

 

“This case has served as a brutal wake-up call to an industry that, before now, had perceived the civil justice system as the only remedy for medical malpractice,” said Goddard.

 

The length of Cichuniec’s sentence could be reconsidered in the coming months after the Colorado Department of Corrections assesses his risk level and sends a report to the judge. At that point, Judge Warner could reduce Cichuniec’s five-year sentence if he finds “unusual and extenuating circumstances,” according to state law. Cichuniec must spend a minimum of 119 days in prison before modification of his sentence.


In 2021, the City of Aurora agreed to pay $15 million to McClain’s parents in settlement of a lawsuit, reported BBC News (March 2). 

 

In January, ex-officer Randy Roedema, found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and assault, was sentenced to 14 months in prison and four years of probation, reported CNN (March 2). Officers Jason Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard were acquitted of all charges in October 2023 and November 2023, respectively.

 

Legislative Changes


McClain’s death had an effect on Colorado legislation. In 2021, a state law restricted paramedics’ use of ketamine. In 2020, the state passed a police reform bill that banned chokeholds, required body camaras, and changed departments’ response to alleged misconduct and victims’ redress of wrongful police violence, reported The Denver Post (September 1, 2021).

 

The Brennan Center for Justice (May 21, 2021) reported that the past year had seen some victories, but transformative change in policing remained elusive. Still, 25 states and Washington, D.C. enacted one or more legislative policing reforms addressing one of three areas: use of force; duty for officers to intervene, report or render medical aid in instances of police misconduct, and policies relating to law enforcement misconduct reporting and decertification.

 

Among other changes, New York City, home to the country’s largest police force, became the first municipality to end qualified immunity, which shields officers from civil lawsuits, joining Colorado in doing so.

 

Besides Colorado, the states of Montana, Nevada and New Mexico also have banned police officers from using qualified immunity as a defense in state court, according to the National Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm.

 

National Police Reform Law Stalled

 

Passage of the national George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would make similar measures applicable in all 50 states. However, it has not yet become law.

 

The House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on March 3, 2021. However, amid opposition over qualified immunity, the bill stalled in the Senate in September 2021, reported ABC News (February 2, 2023).

 

The Conversation, an independent media network, wrote:

 

“Today, police officers’ qualified immunity borders on absolute immunity as very few civil claims make it past the officers’ legal shield. Over many decades and, with increasing intensity in recent years, news reports and citizen complaints have identified police officers harming civilians, particularly Black Americans, seemingly with impunity. Officers know the law will shield them from personal liability, and they also know that it is rare for officers to face criminal charges – much less be convicted.

 

“An aggrieved citizen with a civil rights complaint can no longer argue that an officer’s conduct was motivated by wrongful intent, malice or even prejudice. What matters is not what the officer did but how it compares with what a reasonable officer might have done.”

 

Though the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act stalled in 2021, there is still an urgent call for its passage. There was call for it at the funeral of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, who was violently beaten by Memphis, Tennessee, officers and died from his injuries in a hospital, reported National Public Radio (February 1, 2023).

 

United States Vice President Kamala Harris; the Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime justice activist; Ben Crump, an attorney for Nichols’ family, and Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, all called on lawmakers to pass the policing act.


Emmett Till Antilynching Act

 

In the meantime, after 122 years of blocked efforts, an anti-lynching bill was signed into law.


The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, a national law that defines lynching as a federal the crime, was passed by the House of Representatives in February 2022 and the U.S. Senate in March 2022 and was signed by U.S. President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022.

 

Under the legislation, perpetrators can receive up to 30 years in prison when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury, reported National Public Radio (March 29, 2022).

 

Emmett Till, 13, with his mother, Mamie Till, at Christmas time, 1954 (Photo from the Till Family)

 

Emmett Till

 

Called by different names over the years, the legislation is named for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was abducted, tortured and killed in 1955 after the black teenager from Chicago was accused of whistling and grabbing Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, while visiting relatives in Mississippi. His killers beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, the boy’s mutilated and bloated body was found and retrieved from the river.

 

Passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act marked a career-defining achievement for Illinois Democratic Representative Bobby Rush, a sponsor of the legislation. In January 2022, he announced that he would retire at the end of that year’s Congress after three decades in office and a previous career as a civil rights activist.

 

Rush would have been eight years old when he said that his mother gathered him and his three siblings around the dinner table and showed them the issue of Jet magazine, “the Negro bible”, that covered Emmett’s lynching.

 

“She pointed to that grotesque image of Emmett Till in the open casket, and she said, ‘That’s why I brought my boys out of Georgia.’ I’ll never forget that.”

 

Over the objections of the funeral director in Chicago, Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, had insisted that the casket be left open: “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”

 

The murder of young Emmett sparked national and international outrage after photographs of his corpse were published in the black press.


The photos never appeared in the country’s mainstream, or white, press, according to the Mississippi Center for Investigator Reporting.

 

Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, and J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant’s half-brother, were tried for Emmett’s murder and were acquitted quickly by an all-white jury.

 

Protected against double jeopardy, the rule that prevents the accused from being tried twice for the same crime, the two men admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine to murdering Emmett. They sold the story of how they did it for $4,000 (equivalent to $43,000 in 2022).

 

Fifty years after the crime, Carolyn Bryant told an historian that the lad had never put his hands on her.

 

(From left to right) Former U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace, Albert Einstein, Lewis L. Wallace of Princeton University, and Paul Robeson        (Photo by Bettman/Getty Images)

 

Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson

 

In 1900, the first federal anti-lynching legislation was introduced by Representative George Henry White, of North Carolina, then the body’s only African American lawmaker. His bill failed to advance out of committee and get to a vote in the House of Representatives, reported National Public Radio.

 

There were more than 200 failed legislative attempts to outlaw lynching.


A lobbying attempt by physicist Albert Einstein and actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson with President Harry S. Truman also met with no success, reported the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (September 24, 1946).

 

It was the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany that caused Einstein, who had won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, to settle in the United States in 1933.

 

“The irony of ending in Princeton, one of the most racially segregated towns in the northern United States, was not lost on Einstein," reported Smithsonian Magazine (March 3, 2017). “While no town was free of racism, Princeton had segregated schools and churches, generally following the Jim Crow model in practices, if not by law. The University didn’t (knowingly) admit any black students until (the 1940s), and turned a blind eye when its students terrorized black neighborhoods in town, tearing porches off houses to fuel the annual bonfire.”

 

Einstein publicly denounced racism in the United States.

 

“There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It’s a disease of white people,” Einstein said at the 1946 commencement speech at Lincoln University, the first degree-awarding black college.

 

Despite Einstein’s celebrity status, his visit to Lincoln, near Oxford, Pennsylvania, was largely ignored by the mainstream media, which usually covered his other activities, according to Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (June 11, 2020).

 

Albert Einstein at Lincoln University (Photo from Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

 

Among many other activities, Einstein volunteered to serve as character witness in a trumped-up trial of the foremost black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois. His influence had the desired effect: When the judge heard that Einstein would be involved, he dismissed the case, reported Smithsonian Magazine.

 

He joined writer Theodore Dreiser’s committee to protest the injustice of the Scottsboro Boys trial, in which nine African Americans teenagers were falsely accused of raping a white woman reported Smithsonian Magazine. In 1937, when black opera star Marion Anderson gave a concert at Princeton but was denied lodging at a local segregated hotel, Einstein invited her to stay at his home, according to Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They became friends.

 

The advocate for social justice knew from his experiences as a Jewish scientist in Germany how easily freedom could be destroyed in the name of nationalism and patriotism. He saw racism as a fundamental stumbling block to freedom.

 

Robeson, a 20th-century Renaissance man, was born in Princeton to the Rev. William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill, according to Paul Robeson House & Museum. His father, who was of Ibo origin, had been born into slavery and escaped from South Carolina before he was 20. His mother, who attended Lincoln and taught at a Quaker school, came from an abolitionist Quaker family.

 

Paul Robeson, who graduated valedictorian from Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and received a degree from Columbia University Law School, in New York City, shared a friendship with Einstein for more than 20 years.

 

Einstein joined the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country, and became co-chair of the American Crusade Against Lynching, which Robeson had founded in 1946.

 

A delegation of the anti-lynching organization met with President Truman. Robeson said that he read a message calling for issuance by the President of “a formal public statement expressing your views on lynching, and recommending a definite legislative and educational program to end the disgrace of mob violence,” reported the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (September 24, 1946).

 

Robeson said that Truman indicated that “political matters make it difficult to issue such a statement at this time.”

 

A Luta Continua

 

Finally, nearly 80 years after Robeson and Einstein's appeal to President Truman, an anti-lynching bill became law.

 

Today, being black in the United States is still a dangerous proposition.

 

The struggle continues.



 

 

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