Editorial: Was taking McClain’s killers to trial the right thing to do?

Coloradans have known one heartbreaking truth for four long years: Without the aggressive and callous actions of three Aurora police officers and two paramedics, Elijah McClain would be alive today.

And now, after the first prosecutor on the case refused to take the homicide to trial, Coloradans know another truth: There was not enough evidence to convince a jury that two of those officers’ actions were criminal. Only Aurora police officer Randy Roedema was convicted, and even then, jurors found him guilty of the lesser charges he faced — criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.

As we await the trial of the two paramedics who injected McClain as he lay restrained and unconscious on the ground with an overdose of ketamine, Coloradans may begin to wonder if the initial prosecutor, District Attorney Dave Young, was correct in his decision not to press charges.

Was this outcome really worth the time, effort, and expense put forth by Colorado’s Attorney General Phil Weiser who empaneled a grand jury to consider the evidence and issue the indictments?

We respond with a resolute yes.

America’s justice system demands that when prosecutors have clear and convincing evidence – in this case video and audio of the assault on Elijah McClain – charges be brought. Whether those charges end in a plea deal, trial, conviction or exoneration depends on how jurors view the evidence when taken as a whole. The legal standard for a conviction is rightly extremely high: “proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt.” The complicating fact in McClain’s death is that reasonable people could assign blame to any of the five people charged to varying degrees based on the evidence.

Jurors on Monday essentially determined that the neck hold employed by Nathan Woodyard, 34, was not responsible for McClain’s death, although there could be other reasons they doubted Woodyard’s guilt. Jurors found Woodyard not guilty of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Woodyard was the first officer to contact McClain after someone complained to the police that the young black man was acting suspiciously. There’s no denying Woodyard needlessly escalated the situation by putting his hands on McClain who was not suspected of any crime and was simply walking home from a convenience store with tea he had purchased. But Woodyard walked away after McClain was restrained and other officers took over.

Last month jurors also acquitted Jason Rosenblatt, 34, for the role he played in McClain’s death, finding the officer not guilty of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and second-degree assault.

But that same jury found that Roedema, 41, had contributed to McClain’s death. Roedema was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.

No one has been accused of intentionally killing McClain – murder charges were likely never on the table – but even in terrible accidents, our justice system demands we hold people accountable for reckless behavior. These are some of the most difficult cases to prosecute.

Rosenblatt’s attorney spoke out after his client was found not guilty last month.

“I’m saddened, quite honestly, that Mr. Roedema was convicted. But ultimately, I always felt that my client should never have been charged. The government spent literally millions of taxpayer money to go after my client, and I think they did that inappropriately. And I’m glad the jury saw through it,” said attorney Harvey Steinberg.

Steinberg, as a criminal defense attorney, should know taking a difficult case to trial is not only appropriate, it is what the legal profession demands of prosecutors who ethically and fairly build a case around the evidence.

Roedema and Rosenblatt were indicted by a grand jury – normal people seated by Colorado’s attorney general to consider new evidence in the case that centered around the question of what caused McClain’s death.

“A forensic pathologist opined that the cause of death for Mr. McClain was complications following acute ketamine administration during violent subdual and restraint by law enforcement and emergency response personnel, and the manner of death was homicide.” That is from the grand jury report, which was a scathing assessment of the officers’ indifference to McClain’s life and their poor decision-making that led to violently detaining an innocent man.

McClain begged the officers for help, told them he couldn’t breathe, and yet the men did not assist him. When paramedics arrived, instead of helping McClain, they injected him with too much of a drug intended to subdue dangerous patients – there was never any evidence that McClain was dangerous, other than one officer claiming McClain attempted to grab a gun.

Two of the paramedics will go on trial next month.

Weiser rectified a grave injustice by bringing the people responsible for McClain’s death before a jury to assess the evidence and determine if their actions were criminal.

Two acquittals and a conviction of lesser charges were not the outcomes Elijah’s mother and the community supporting her had hoped for, but after four long years, it was justice. The trials aired all the evidence, exposed the tragedy in a legal setting with strict parameters for guilt and innocence, and let a jury weigh the decision.

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