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Paramedic gets 5 years in prison for death of Elijah McClain in rare case against medical responders

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BRIGHTON, CO –

A Colorado paramedic was sentenced Friday to five years in prison in a rare lawsuit against medical responders following the death of Elijah McClain, a black man whose name became part of rallying cries for social justice that swept the United States in 2020.

McClain was walking on the street of a Denver suburb in 2019 when police, responding to a suspicious person report, forcibly restrained him and held him by the neck. His last words – “I can’t breathe” – foreshadowed those of George Floyd a year later in Minneapolis.

Peter Cichuniec and a fellow paramedic were convicted in December of criminally negligent homicide for injecting McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative eventually blamed for killing the 23-year-old massage therapist. Cichuniec was also convicted of a more serious charge of second-degree assault for administering a drug without consent or for a legitimate medical purpose.

The deaths of McClain and others raised questions about the use of ketamine to subdue struggling suspects, and the accusation sent shockwaves through the ranks of paramedics across the United States.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom after Friday’s sentencing, as she had done in previous hearings.

In her testimony before sentencing by Judge Mark Warner, Sheneen McClain said she once dreamed of becoming a firefighter and considered them heroes “until the day they took my life.” son “.

“You are no longer a local hero,” she said as Cichuniec sat with his lawyers at a nearby table. “Next time, think for yourself and don’t follow the lead of a crowd of cowards.”

She added that other paramedics could have intervened “just by saying, ‘Stop hurting my patient.’ »

Cichuniec faced up to 16 years in prison for the assault, and the five-year sentence was the minimum the judge could have given him under sentencing guidelines. The second convicted paramedic, Jeremy Cooper, Cooper, is expected to be sentenced in April.

Cichuniec, who has been in custody since his conviction, asked the judge for mercy. He wiped away tears as family members and friends testified as character witnesses on his behalf, and later told the judge that he had spent his 18-year career as a firefighter and paramedic, putting his life on the line to save others.

“I have never backed down from a call and I have had more things happen to me than you can imagine,” he said. “It made me sick when the prosecution said in closing arguments that I showed no remorse for Elijah. … There was absolutely no intention to harm Elijah McClain.”

As he was led out of court in handcuffs, a family member shouted “I love you Pete” as Cichuniec turned and waved.

Cichuniec’s wife stressed that the sentence was the most lenient her husband could have received, before starting to cry.

“It’s almost better to know,” Katy Cichuniec said.

Before the hearing, Cichuniec’s supporters occupied some rows of seats on the prosecution’s side of the courtroom. When Sheneen McClain came in and saw them, she said, “Are you all supporting Elijah? sarcastically, putting his hand to his heart.

Firefighters and their union officials have sharply criticized the state’s prosecution of Cichuniec. They said this discouraged firefighters from becoming paramedics, reducing the number of trained personnel in an emergency and putting lives at risk.

“Convicting Pete of death is not justice. He’s the very definition of a scapegoat,” said former Aurora Fire Lt. John Lauder, who recently retired after working with Cichuniec for two decades. “Will paramedics now be held responsible for consequences beyond their control?

But Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber said Cichuiniec failed to follow his training and never properly evaluated McClain before knowingly allowing him to give him more ketamine than necessary.

“Elijah was treated as a problem that could be easily solved with ketamine, rather than someone who needed to be assessed, talked to, treated with respect and care,” he said.

Paramedics who fail to uphold their oath to save lives should be held accountable, said Candice Bailey, a police reform advocate in Aurora, Colorado.

“If you’re doing your job and you’re keeping the oath of your job, why would we have a conversation outside of ‘Thank you?’” Bailey said, upset that the longest sentence for McClain’s murder was only five years.

“None of them should have gotten out without 30 years on their backs,” she said.

McClain’s death initially received little attention, but sparked renewed interest as mass protests swept the country following Floyd’s death.

Lawyers console paramedic Peter Cichuniec after his sentence is read Friday, March 1, 2024 in Brighton, Colo. (Colorado State Court via AP Pool)

McClain was arrested by police after a 911 caller reported he looked suspicious while walking down the street waving his arms and wearing a face mask on Aug. 24, 2019, in suburban Aurora in Denver. McClain, who was listening to music through headphones, appeared caught off guard when a police officer put his hand on him seconds after approaching him. That sparked a struggle that included a neck hold and restraint that lasted about 20 minutes before McClain was injected with 500 milligrams of ketamine.

He suffered a cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was taken off life support three days later.

Experts said the sedative ultimately killed McClain, who was already weakened after struggling to breathe while trapped after inhaling vomit into his lungs during the struggle with police.

Prosecutors said paramedics failed to perform basic medical checks on McClain, such as taking his pulse, before administering ketamine. The dose was too high for a person of his size – 140 pounds (64 kilograms), experts testified. Prosecutors say they also did not monitor McClain immediately after giving him the sedative, but instead left him lying on the ground, making it more difficult to breathe.

The case against the paramedics was closely followed by firefighters and medical responders across the country. A fire union leader, Edward Kelly of the International Association of Firefighters, told reporters after Cichuniec’s sentencing that prosecutors were unfairly criminalizing split-second decisions by responders.

The case also exposed gaps in medical protocols for sedating people in police custody. Experts say they need to be filled to prevent more deaths.

“We didn’t realize how dangerous restraining and chemically sedating these people can be,” said Eric Jaeger, a New Hampshire paramedic and EMS educator. “For better or worse, criminal convictions draw attention to the problem.”

The only police officer convicted in McClain’s death, Randy Roedema, was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison in January. Two other indicted officers were acquitted after jury trials that lasted weeks.

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