Paramedics Gave Elijah McClain a Lethal Dose of Ketamine

Elijah McClain’s first autopsy didn't have a cause of death. A new, amended version acknowledges that a lethal dose of ketamine killed him.
A mural of Elijah McClain, painted by Thomas "Detour" Evans, is seen on the back side of the Epic Brewing building in Denver, Colorado on Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Elijah McClain, the young Black man killed during his arrest by Aurora, Colorado, police, died because paramedics gave him a lethal dose of ketamine, according to an amended version of his autopsy released last week.

The new autopsy, made public Sept. 23, now acknowledges that the 23-year-old massage therapist was given way too high a dose of the sedative for his weight, which caused him to go into cardiac arrest during the encounter in August 2019.

"Simply put, this dosage of ketamine was too much for this individual and it resulted in an overdose, even though the blood ketamine level was consistent with a 'therapeutic' concentration," Dr. Stephen Cina, a pathologist who helped conduct the examination for the county, wrote in the updated report. "I believe that Mr. McClain would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine."

The initial autopsy report, released to the public in 2019, listed McClain’s cause of death as “undetermined,” despite mentioning that his reaction to the drug could not be ruled out. The lack of certainty frustrated McClain’s family and their attorneys, who believed the officers’ unnecessary use of excessive force that night dictated the paramedics’ willingness to use the sedative in the first place.

McClain’s cause of death now reads “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint,” but Cina stopped short of changing his manner of death. He wrote he didn’t have enough evidence to change it from “undetermined” to a more active cause like homicide or accident. The report also says that Cina could not determine if the police, who placed McClain in chokehold, contributed to his death.

The new autopsy was signed by Chief Coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan in July 2021 but only released to the public last Friday. The report was amended after additional evidence in the form of body-camera footage, witness testimony, and “additional records” were made available to the office of the coroner, according to the report.

Just over a year ago, the three officers involved in McClain’s arrest and the two paramedics who showed up to provide McClain medical treatment were charged with negligent homicide and manslaughter. The new cause of death, which comes just over three years after McClain’s deadly encounter with police, will be sure to impact the upcoming criminal trials of the men and women involved in his death.

On Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was tackled by officers Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema, and Jason Rosenblatt as he made his way home. The officers were responding to a 911 call about a suspicious man walking through the neighborhood wearing a ski mask. McClain, an anemic who wore the ski mask to keep himself warm, was handcuffed and restrained with a chokehold. Despite his apologetic cries and pleas to just let him go, the officers continued.


“I was just going home,” McClain is heard saying on body-camera footage during the struggle. “I’m just different, I’m just different, that’s all, that’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry.”

Paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper were called to the scene and told that McClain was suffering from “excited delirium,” a supposed state of hyper-agitation often used by police to describe Black suspects during police interactions. Believing the officers, Cichuniec and Cooper injected McClain with ketamine, often used as a sedative, after which he went into cardiac arrest. He was declared brain-dead on Aug. 27 and taken off life support three days later.

While McClain’s death was one of several high-profile instances of questionable use of force by the Aurora Police Department at the time, the tragedy didn’t receive national attention until 2020, alongside worldwide protests over the police killings of other Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

McClain’s death has also resulted in some reforms. Last year, Colorado’s Department of Public Health recommended a series of changes to how first responders use ketamine in hopes of preventing more fatalities like McClain’s, including the creation of dosing standards based on patient body weight, standardized rules on when ketamine can and can’t be administered, and mandating the monitoring of cardiac and respiratory activity for those given the drug.

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