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Colorado paramedic jailed for five years over killing of Elijah McClain

Colorado paramedic jailed for five years over killing of Elijah McClain (AP)
Colorado paramedic jailed for five years over killing of Elijah McClain (AP)

A Colorado firefighter paramedic has been sentenced to five years in prison over his role in the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.

The sentence, handed down on Friday to Peter Cichunic, followed a rare prosecution of medical responders that has left officials rethinking how they treat people in police custody.

Cichuniec and fellow paramedic Jeremy Cooper were both convicted in December of criminally negligent homicide for administering a sedative ultimately blamed for killing McClain, a young Black massage therapist, in 2019 who had been stopped by police while walking home from buying some ice tea.

His killing drew widespread attention the following year in the wake of the police murder of another Black man, George Floyd, by police officers in Minneapolis.

The five-year sentence was the minimum the judge could have given Cichuniec under sentencing guidelines.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom following the sentencing, as she’s done after previous hearings. In previous testimony Ms McClain said she once dreamed of being a firefighter and considered them heroes “until the day they took my son’s life.”

“You are a local hero no more,” she said as Cichuniec sat with his attorneys at a nearby table. “Next time, think for yourself and do not follow the direction of a crowd of cowards.”

Peter Cichuniec received five years in prison following the death of Elijah McClain in 2019 (2023 The Denver Post, Medianews Group)
Peter Cichuniec received five years in prison following the death of Elijah McClain in 2019 (2023 The Denver Post, Medianews Group)

Cichuniec had also been found guilty of the more serious charge of second-degree assault for giving a drug without consent or a legitimate medical purpose. Jurors concluded the assault caused serious bodily injury or death, which required that he be sentenced to at least five years in prison.

Cichuniec — who has been in custody since his conviction and was handcuffed and shackled for the hearing — asked the judge for mercy ahead of his sentencing on Friday. He said he had spent his 18-year career as a firefighter and paramedic putting his own life on the line and putting other lives before his own.

“I have never backed down from a call and I’ve had more things happen to me than you can imagine,” he said. “It sickened me when the prosecution said during their closing argument that I showed no remorse for Elijah. ... There was absolutely no intent to cause any harm to Elijah McClain.”

Following the sentencing a member of Cichuniec’s family called out, “love you Pete” as he looked back and waved at them before leaving court in handcuffs, The Associated Press reported.

On 24 August 2019 McClain was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colorado, listening to music and wearing a ski mask, which his family said he wore to keep warm because of his anaemia, when a 911 caller reported him as “looking sketchy”. Police spotted McClain — who was not armed and had not committed any crime — and put him in a neck hold.

That began a struggle that lasted about 20 minutes before the firefighter paramedics arrived and McClain was injected with 500 milligrams of ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was taken off life support three days later.

Experts testified that the sedative ultimately killed McClain, who was already weakened from struggling to breathe while being pinned down after inhaling vomit into his lungs during the struggle with police.

Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was killed in 2019 (via REUTERS)
Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was killed in 2019 (via REUTERS)

The case highlighted gaps in medical procedures for sedations of people in police custody that experts said must be addressed so more deaths can be prevented.

The convictions of Cichuniec and Cooper in 2023 sent shockwaves through the ranks of paramedics across the US and thrust the profession into the acrimonious fight over social justice sparked by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Firefighters and officials from their union previously criticised the state’s prosecution of Cichuniec and said it was discouraging firefighters from becoming paramedics, decreasing the number of qualified personnel in emergencies and thereby putting lives at risk.

“Convicting Pete for the death is not justice. It’s the very definition of a scapegoat,” said former Aurora Fire Lieutenant John Lauder, who recently retired after working with Cichuniec over two decades.

“But for the grace of God, it could be us in jail. The result of this decision will have a negative impact on patient care throughout the nation. Will paramedics now be held be held responsible for outcomes beyond their control?”