BRIGHTON, Colo. - Jurors convicted a Denver-area police officer of homicide Thursday and acquitted another of all charges in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man whose name became a rallying cry in protests over racial injustice in policing.
Aurora police officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault by a 12-person jury. They found officer Jason Rosenblatt not guilty.
Roedema, who kept his head bowed after the verdict was read, faces up to three years in prison on the more serious homicide charge. Rosenblatt hugged his supporters as he walked out of court.
McClain’s mother listened to the verdict from the front row, where Attorney General Phil Weiser had his hand on her shoulder. Sheneen McClain held her right hand high in a raised fist as she left the courtroom. She expressed disappointment in the verdict.
"This is the divided states of America, and that’s what happens," she said as she walked away from the court house.
McClain died after being put in a neck hold by a third officer and pinned to the ground, then injected by paramedics with an overdose of ketamine.
Roedema and Rosenblatt were charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault — all felonies. However, the jury as it went into deliberation was asked to consider a lesser form of assault for Roedema, the one he was found guilty of.
The third Aurora officer and two paramedics were indicted on similar charges, but the paramedics have more counts.
FILE - A mural of Elijah McClain, painted by Thomas "Detour" Evans, is seen on the back side of the Epic Brewing building in Denver, Colorado on Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Roedema and another officer who was not charged held down McClain while paramedics administered the ketamine. Rosenblatt’s attorney had pointed out during the trial that he was not near McClain at that point in the confrontation.
Attorneys for both defendants pointed to the ketamine as the cause of McClain’s death. Roedema’s attorney said the officers were forced to react when McClain resisted and allegedly reached for the gun of one of the officers, a claim prosecutors disputed.
Don Sisson, a defense lawyer for Roedema, has said officers had to act in the moment to protect themselves.
"They didn’t get to watch the video over and over and over for three weeks before they get to act," he said Tuesday during closing statements.
As the split verdict was read, Roedema’s wife leaned forward in her seat with her head down as Rosenblatt’s wife patted her back. Sisson declined comment after the verdict was issued.
Judge Mark Warner set sentencing for January 5, 2024.
The three officers charged were the first on the scene and the ones who took McClain down the ground.
At least three officers not charged were involved in restraining McClain at some point during the confrontation. One of them, officer Alicia Ward, testified for the prosecution that she had her hand on McClain’s head when the ketamine was administered but did not apply pressure. Ward said she would have applied pressure if McClain resisted at that point, but said she did not need to.
FILE - Former Aurora police officer, Jason Rosenblatt, right, heads back to the courtroom after a brief break in closing arguments at the Adams County Justice Center on Oct. 10, 2023 in Brighton, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
The case initially did not receive widespread attention, but protests over the killing of George Floyd the following year sparked outrage over McClain’s death. His pleading words captured on body camera footage, "I’m an introvert and I’m different," struck a chord.
A local prosecutor in 2019 decided against criminal charges because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how the 23-year-old massage therapist died. But Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office to take another look at the case in 2020, and the officers and paramedics were indicted in 2021 by a grand jury.
The killings of McClain, Floyd and others triggered a wave of legislation that put limits on the use of neck holds in more than two dozen states. Colorado now tells paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having a controversial condition known as excited delirium, which has symptoms including increased strength that has been associated with racial bias against Black men.
Roedema and Rosenblatt did not testify in their defense at trial. Their attorneys blamed McClain’s death on the paramedics for injecting him with ketamine, which doctors said is what ultimately killed him.
However, prosecutors argued that the officers’ restraint of McClain contributed. Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber told jurors that Roedema and Rosenblatt also encouraged the paramedics to give McClain ketamine by describing him as having symptoms of excited delirium that they had learned about in training. But he said the officers did not tell them anything about McClain’s complaints that he could not breathe, something prosecutors said happened six times.
Sheneen McClain sat with attorneys for the state in the front row of the courtroom during the trial, part of her quest to remind the mostly white jury that her son was a real person. She watched the encounter being played over and over again along with graphic photos from his autopsy.
FILE - Aurora police officer, Randy Roedema, right, walks down the hall with one of his attorneys during a break in closing arguments at the Adams County Justice Center on Oct. 10, 2023 in Brighton, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
During testimony that stretched over three weeks, witnesses were limited to offering what they "perceived" someone to be doing or saying in the video. The video clips did not always provide a complete picture of what was happening, but Judge Mark Warner said the jurors were the only ones who could decide what they meant, just like any other piece of evidence.
McClain was stopped Aug. 24, 2019, while walking home from a convenience store on a summer night, listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face. A 911 caller reported him as suspicious, and the police stop quickly became physical after McClain, seemingly caught off guard, asked to be left alone. He had not been accused of committing any crime.
The encounter quickly escalated, with Officers Nathan Woodyard, Roedema and Rosenblatt taking McClain to the ground, and Woodyard putting him in a neck hold and pressing against his carotid artery, temporarily rendering him unconscious. The officers told investigators they took McClain down after hearing Roedema say, "He grabbed your gun dude." He later said Rosenblatt’s gun was the target.
FILE - A memorial near where Elijah McClain was forcibly restrained by Aurora police officers on Billings Street is shown on June 30, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
The initial statement was heard on the body camera footage but exactly what happened is difficult to see. The prosecution urged jurors to be skeptical, saying Rosenblatt said he could not feel anyone reaching for his gun.
But defense lawyer Sisson pointed out that McClain said "I intend to take my power back," which he argued showed intent.
Paramedics injected McClain with ketamine as Roedema and another officer who was not charged held him on the ground. He went into cardiac arrest en route to the hospital and pronounced dead three days later.
The doctor who performed McClain’s autopsy, Stephen Cina, has said he died of complications from the ketamine while also noting that occurred after the forcible restraint. However, Cina was not able to say if the death was a homicide or an accident or if the officers’ actions contributed to McClain’s death.
Dr. Roger Mitchell, another forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy and body camera video, found their actions did play a role. He labeled the death a homicide.