Focus on policy in trial of paramedics for Elijah McClain’s death

Posted at 5:58 PM, November 30, 2023

AURORA, Colo. (Scripps News Denver) — Two paramedics are at the center of the third and final trial in the case of Elijah McClain‘s 2019 death, and both defendants face charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, plus sentence enhancers.

Photo of Elijah McClain

An undated photo of Elijah McClain (Scripps News Colorado Springs)

McClain, 23, was stopped by officers with the Aurora Police Department (APD) on Aug. 24, 2019 and following a violent encounter, died a few days later.

Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper are accused of injecting a significant amount of ketamine into McClain. Medical experts have previously testified that he was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for somebody of his size. In previous trials, prosecutors said the carotid hold, which was applied by police before paramedics arrived, played a key role in his death, while defense attorneys argued that the cause of death was only the ketamine, and McClain would have survived the police encounter without the injection. The ketamine led to cardiac arrest. McClain was declared brain dead and died Aug. 30, 2019.

Previously, a jury found APD Officer Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault, and former APD Officer Jason Rosenblatt, who was fired by the department less than a year after McClain’s death, was acquitted of all charges. In the second trial, defendant APD Officer Nathan Woodyard was also found not guilty.

The trial for Cichuniec and Cooper is expected to last about a month.

On day two of the trial against Aurora Fire Rescue (AFR) paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, the prosecution with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office spent the morning digging into how AFR policies and procedures are developed outlining the division of duties when Aurora medics and partner ambulance agencies respond to an emergency call.

Aurora Fire Rescue typically does not provide transport services and utilizes partnerships like with Falck Rocky Mountain, which responded on the night of Elijah McClain’s encounter with Aurora police.

Aurora Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Allen Robnett, a 34-year-veteran with the department, was called to give the jury a cursory understanding of AFR’s procedures, training requirements for medics and the manual of procedures, a 510-page department document.

The document Robnett spoke to outlines on scene coordination between AFR and ambulance services depending on which organization first arrives at a call.

The manual dictates how the first responding agency, either AFR or the ambulance crew, should approach the scene and patient and which medical equipment, like advanced life support kits, should be utilized.

When asked if the first unit on scene is tasked with bringing the tools that might be needed, Robnett responded “yes” and if AFR is first on the scene should they be taking medical kits with them to the patient, Robnett answered, “in most cases, yes.”

On the night of August 24, 2019, AFR paramedics Cichuniec and Cooper arrived in their truck before the ambulance.

AFR protocol also outlines how paramedics make contact and assessments of patients. “Patient interview would be to talk to the patient if possible, all patients are not communicating,” testified Robnett. “You’ll certainly begin a patient assessment on scene to evaluate their current state.”

Robnett was asked by the prosecution to describe what medical equipment is typically on board an Aurora fire engine. “Definitely have an ALS kit, oxygen kit, other tools you mentioned. Suctions are available, the monitor, a narcotics kit or narcotics box,” said Robnett. “There’s a plethora of equipment available for a medic to determine what they need on scene.”

Aurora fire trucks do not have gurneys though, Robnett testified.

Attorney Shana Beggan, counsel for paramedic Cooper, focused on the scope of what the term “scene” means

“A scene could be pretty large. If your engine is parked on the scene and not at the patient’s side, it’s still at the scene,” asked Beggan to which Robnett replied “correct.”

In day 1 testimony, it was revealed the paramedics had to park their AFR truck around a block away from where Elijah McClain was apprehended by officers due to the heavy police presence and paramedic Cichuniec later said he directed the arriving ambulance to take a different route to avoid some of the congestion.

The prosecution in its opening statements on Wednesday attempted to highlight an alleged lack of medical action on the part of the paramedics while McClain was apprehended and held on the ground by Aurora police in the minutes before the ambulance arrived.

“The defendants acted with no regard to the risks to Elijah McClain. They didn’t speak one word to him or touch him with one finger,” said prosecutor Shannon Stevenson on day 1. “They don’t ask the police a single question about Elijah McClain’s condition, don’t take a single piece of medical equipment out of the bag, don’t lean down to look at Elijah McClain.”

But attorney Michael Lowe, paramedic Cichuniec’s counsel, on Thursday questioned witness Robnett if there was any prior policies concerning the coordination between Aurora Fire Rescue and the Aurora Police Department when responding to the same scene.

“We do train together on certain scenes like mass casualties and active shooter incidents,” testified Robnett, who then said the two agencies did not at that time train together on daily interactions.

Portions of the training records of both paramedics were briefly shown to the jury and Robnett testified that, to his knowledge, neither paramedic Cooper or Cichuniec were ever out of compliance with AFR training requirements.

In a tense moment between Cooper’s defense and Judge Mark Warner, attorney Beggan asked Robnett if he recognized either of the paramedics to which he said yes.

He stated he had known Cichuniec for more than a decade.

She asked witness Robnett if he had ever seen Cichuniec act with any bias or prejudice to which Robnett shot back “absolutely not.”

The People objected to this line of questioning

Beggan asked if the paramedic had a reputation for someone who would provide comfort and care to patients and again the prosecution again objected.

Witness Robnett was excused before the mid-morning break.

This story was originally published by Scripps News Denver, an E.W. Scripps Company.