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First responders were sentenced in Elijah McClain's death. But has justice been done?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All five police officers and paramedics criminally charged in the death of Elijah McClain have now had their days in court in Colorado. McClain's death drew attention in the wake of George Floyd's murder. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry reports the case has inspired police reform in Colorado, but not everyone feels justice has been done.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: I'm standing in Aurora, Colo., on the corner of Evergreen and Boeing. Almost five years ago, a 23-year-old massage therapist named Elijah McClain was walking home from a convenience store after buying iced tea in this neighborhood. McClain, who was Black, didn't know that someone had reported a suspicious person. And despite never being suspected of committing any crime, police took him down here. He was unarmed but given two carotid holds anyway and thrown to the grass several times. Then paramedics administered an overdose of a powerful sedative and loaded him into an ambulance, handcuffed, where he lost his pulse and never recovered.

There were years of delays to get here. But last week a state judge handed down the final sentence for the police officers and paramedics. Fire Department medic Jeremy Cooper, who administered the fatal dose of ketamine to McClain, was sentenced to 14 months in jail and work release. The other paramedic, Cooper's boss, Peter Cichuniec, got five years in prison. Two of the police officers were acquitted, but Officer Randy Roedema was sentenced to 14 months in jail. Judge Mark Warner, who heard all the cases, said this at Cooper's sentencing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK WARNER: The life of Elijah McClain mattered and matters. It's almost unthinkable. A young man died for really no reason. It occurs to the court that it didn't have to happen.

SHERRY: Sheneen McClain, Elijah's mother, sat through more than three months of the first responders' trials. A single woman who raised six kids almost completely by herself through years of poverty and homelessness, she had to watch the video of her son's death repeatedly in court.

SHENEEN MCCLAIN: Even though I know that he's safe and he's protected and he's in his full power in his spiritual form, the fact that he's not here is what hurts. You know what I'm saying? And the reason why he's not here, that's what hurts. I cannot unsee those videos. I cannot unknow the evil within those that murdered my son. I can't unknow their heart.

SHERRY: Elijah McClain's murder at the hands of police and paramedics actually came the year before George Floyd's. Initially, the local district attorney didn't take the case up, and the officers and paramedics returned to work. But as police brutality protests unfolded across the country in 2020, Colorado's governor appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser as special prosecutor. Weiser then brought felony charges. After the last was sentenced, he says there's been some measure of justice for Elijah McClain.

PHIL WEISER: He was walking down the street, listening to music, carrying his iced tea. And he ended up dead. There's nothing that could happen that would provide the sort of healing that Sheneen McClain and the community want.

SHERRY: In 2020, Colorado lawmakers passed large-scale police reforms. They banned carotid chokeholds, made it easier for individuals to sue police officers and strengthened the rules on uses of force. This year they banned the term excited delirium in law enforcement training and as a cause of death. First responders gave McClain a sedative because they had diagnosed him with excited delirium. But despite these reforms, community activists like Hashim Coates say more needs to be done.

HASHIM COATES: You know, there's no guarantee that even with irritants, every clam will produce a pearl.

SHERRY: Coates stood by Sheneen McClain during these trials. He carries around the Aurora police chief's cell phone number and pushes for change around policing, especially in the Black community. He says activists still can't let up.

COATES: We need to be harder. We need to be firmer in our response to APD, not for Elijah's family but for the next unknown family that something's going to happen to because we haven't been harder.

SHERRY: Sheneen McClain says she, too, will keep pushing for police reforms. But she's skeptical that law enforcement culture can change completely.

MCCLAIN: I don't think policing is better because there are still people or individuals that feel that they did nothing wrong. You know, if they don't acknowledge they're wrong, then how can it get better?

SHERRY: The trials have also resulted in changes among paramedics. Twenty-five Aurora firefighters have now resigned from the paramedic part of their job for fear of criminal liability. Everyone involved in the trials would say there is still immeasurable heartbreak and an unsatisfying amount of work to be done. Activists say it's still up to the community and probably Sheneen McClain to keep the momentum for reform alive.

SHERRY: For NPR News, I'm Allison Sherry in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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