Four years ago, a young Black man returning home from a store in Aurora, Colo., was confronted by the police, arrested, put in a carotid chokehold, injected with a sedative by paramedics and placed into an ambulance. The entire encounter was over in about 18 minutes, a state prosecutor said. And the young man, Elijah McClain, died several days later.
On Wednesday, two police officers charged in Mr. McClain’s death faced a jury for the first time in a joint trial. A Colorado state prosecutor said the actions of those officers, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt, were a betrayal of the oath taken by law enforcement.
“Mr. Roedema and Mr. Rosenblatt, violated their oaths, failed their oaths, failed the mandates of their own police department, and ultimately failed Elijah McClain,” the prosecutor, Jonathan Bunge, said.
The men are the first of five emergency workers who will be tried in Mr. McClain’s death. Two more trials follow this one. The three police officers and two paramedics are facing charges in his death including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. All have pleaded not guilty.
The lawyers representing Mr. Roedema and Mr. Rosenblatt were unified in their opening statements that the police stop was appropriate, that use of force was justified and that departmental training and policies were followed.
Reid Elkus, a lawyer representing Mr. Roedema, said what happened to Mr. McClain was an indisputable tragedy but not a crime. He argued that officers had good cause to stop Mr. McClain because he was acting suspiciously in a high-crime area.
And the actions taken against Mr. McClain, he said, were a response to his non-compliance, resistance and his attempt to grab one of the officer’s gun. He said the blame for Mr. McClain’s death lay with the paramedics who injected the ketamine, not with the officer who performed the carotid hold.
“Evidence will establish one thing: innocent of crimes charged,” Mr. Elkus said of the two officers on trial.
Harvey Steinberg, who represents Mr. Rosenblatt, drew jurors’ attention to an autopsy report, which was amended from first listing an undetermined cause and manner of death to ultimately naming the cause as complications from ketamine following forcible restraint. That shift was because of politics and political pressure, he said.
Those clashing narratives set the stage for what are expected to be closely-watched joint trials that will explore the roles of first responders and public safety. The case is one of the most high-profile involving police violence since the murder of George Floyd set off mass protests around the country.
The 2019 death of Mr. McClain, 23, would come to engulf — and divide — much of Aurora, a city of around 400,000 people east of Denver. Activists demanded changes to the Police Department, which a state investigation later found to practice racially biased policing and too often used excessive force. Others, including some city officials, defended the Police Department and said officers did nothing wrong.
Race, long an underpinning of the case, was at the core of questions for potential jurors, and was also the subject of a testy exchange between lawyers during the jury selection process.
The day before the trial started, Mr. Steinberg accused the prosecution of labeling him a racist — and the judge threatened to have him ejected from the courtroom.
The jury was selected from a pool of about 250 residents in Adams County. Much of the discussion during voir dire was about race, perceptions of law enforcement and police use of force.
The majority white jury (seven women and seven men, including two alternates) will decide if the actions of Mr. Roedema, 41, who has been suspended, and Mr. Rosenblatt, 34, a former police officer, were criminal. The trial is expected to last four weeks.
Mr. McClain, a massage therapist, was stopped by the police after a 911 caller described him as “sketchy.” He was waving his arms and wearing a ski mask, which his mother said he wore because he was anemic, which made him cold.
He was not suspected of committing a crime but the arrest quickly escalated. Officers put Mr. McClain in a carotid chokehold, and paramedics injected him with ketamine — some of the confrontation was captured on body-worn camera. He died in the hospital several days later.
The officers and paramedics were initially cleared of any wrongdoing by their respective departments and the local district attorney declined to file charges.
Mr. Bunge offered a detailed timeline of the night of Mr. McClain’s death, which included footage taken from the body-worn cameras. He said the police violated multiple department policies, from having no grounds to stop Mr. McClain to turning off the body cameras.
“Evidence will show that the defendants were reckless throughout the encounter,” he said.
Candace McCoy, professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the prosecution is going to have to convince jurors that the police “knowingly understood that what they were doing was out of policy and likely to create serious harm or even death.”