Elijah McClain Credit: Family photo

In 2019, when the police confronted Elijah McClain because he was acting “sketchy,” they had no legal right to place him in a chokehold; now a recent autopsy by forensic pathologist Stephen Cina said the injection of ketamine by paramedics was excessive and led to his death. “Simply put, this dosage of ketamine was too much for this individual and it resulted in an overdose, even though his blood ketamine level was consistent with a ‘therapeutic’ blood concentration,” Cina wrote.

The report was released publicly on Friday and contradicts an earlier autopsy. Despite the new findings about the incident, it is still not classified as a homicide or an accident, but “undetermined.”

McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, a massage therapist wearing a ski mask and a self-taught violinist, was on his way home in Aurora, Colo., and apparently dancing frenetic to the sound of music on his earphones when someone called the police about his gyrations. The officers arrived after the 911 call, seized him and applied a carotid chokehold, which cut off the flow of blood to his brain.

Damaso Reyes and I first reported on this story as part of a series we did on “Qualified Immunity,” in 2021. At that time the police report contended that McClain had resisted arrest and one officer claimed he heard another shout “he is going for your gun.” McClain was not responsive when paramedics arrived and injected him with 500 mg of ketamine, an allowable sedative in Colorado to calm excited delirium. That dosage, Cina concluded, was too much for McClain who stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 140 pounds.  

While being transported to the hospital he suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced brain dead three days later on August 30, 2019. An autopsy identified McClain’s history of asthma and the carotid hold, neither of which the report said contributed to his death, according to the report; it also noted the amount of ketamine in his system was at a “therapeutic level.” The officers involved were initially placed on administrative leave but were later reinstated when prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges, prompting Rep. Leslie Herod, the vice chair of the Colorado House Judiciary Committee, to launch a campaign that led to the implementation of SB 217.

In September 2021, charges were announced against three Aurora police officers and two paramedics. The defendants are expected to enter pleas in November.

Evidence that emerged during the grand jury proceedings prompted the coroner to alter the original autopsy report, but the changes remained secret for more than a year.

The amended version released Friday was made public under a court order after Colorado Public Radio and several other media outlets sued to get access to it.

It was not until the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 that McClain’s tragedy gained attention and aroused hundreds of protesting activists.

Last year, Aurora agreed to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit by McClain’s family. The city also banned the chokehold used in his arrest and is considering a ban on ketamine.

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