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Paramedic gets 5 years in prison for Elijah McClain’s death in rare case against medical responders

BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — A Colorado paramedic was sentenced Friday to five years in prison in a rare prosecution of medical responders following the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man whose name became part of the rallying cries for social justice that swept the U.S. in 2020.

McClain was walking down the street in a Denver suburb in 2019 when police responding to a suspicious person report forcibly restrained him and put him in a neck hold. His final words -- “I can’t breathe” -- foreshadowed those of George Floyd a year later in Minneapolis.

Peter Cichuniec and a fellow paramedic were convicted in December of criminally negligent homicide for injecting McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative ultimately blamed for killing the 23-year-old massage therapist. Cichuniec also was convicted on a more serious charge of second-degree assault for giving a drug without consent or a legitimate medical purpose.

McClain’s death and others have raised questions about the use of ketamine to subdue struggling suspects, and the prosecution sent shock waves through the ranks of paramedics across the U.S.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom following Friday's sentencing, as she has done after previous hearings.

In testimony before the sentence was handed down by Judge Mark Warner, Sheneen 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.”

She added that the other paramedics could have intervened “simply by just saying, ‘Stop hurting my patient.’ ”

Cichuniec had faced up to 16 years in prison on the assault charge, and the five-year sentence was the minimum the judge could have given him under sentencing guidelines. The second convicted paramedic, Jeremy Cooper, Cooper, is scheduled to be sentenced in April.

Cichuniec, who has been in custody since his conviction, asked the judge for mercy. He wiped away tears as family members and friends testified as character witnesses on his behalf, and later told the judge he had spent his 18-year career as a firefighter and paramedic putting his life on the line to save others.

“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.”

As he was led out of the court in handcuffs, someone from his family called out, “Love you Pete” as Cichuniec looked back and waved.

Cichuniec’s wife noted that the sentence was the most lenient her husband could have received, before starting to cry.

“It’s almost better knowing,” Katy Cichuniec said.

Before the hearing, supporters of Cichuniec took up some of the rows of seats on the prosecution side of the courtroom. When Sheneen McClain walked in and saw them, she said “You all supporting Elijah?” sarcastically, holding her hand to her heart.

Firefighters and officials from their union sharply criticized the state’s prosecution of Cichuniec. They 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. “Will paramedics now be held be held responsible for outcomes beyond their control?"

But Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber said Cichuiniec didn't follow his training and never properly assessed McClain before he knowingly authorized giving him more ketamine than was needed.

“Elijah was treated as a problem that could be easily solved with ketamine, rather than as a person who needed to be evaluated, spoken to, treated with respect and care,” he said.

Paramedics who are not upholding their oaths to save lives should be held accountable, said Candice Bailey, a police reform advocate in Aurora, Colorado.

“If you’re doing your job and you’re living up to the oath of your job, why would we ever have a conversation outside of ‘Thank you’?" said Bailey, who was upset that the longest sentence for killing McClain was only five years.

"Not one of them should have gotten away without 30 years on their backs,” she said.

McClain’s death received little attention initially but gained renewed interest as mass protests swept the nation after Floyd's death.

McClain was stopped by police after a 911 caller reported he looked suspicious walking down the street waving his arms and wearing a face mask on Aug. 24, 2019, in the Denver suburb of Aurora. McClain, who had been listening to music with earbuds, seemed caught off guard when an officer put his hands on him within seconds of approaching him. That began a struggle including a neck hold and a restraint that lasted about 20 minutes before 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.

Prosecutors said the paramedics did not conduct basic medical checks of McClain, such as taking his pulse, before giving him the ketamine. The dose was too much for someone of his size — 140 pounds (64 kilograms), experts testified. Prosecutors say they also did not monitor McClain immediately after giving him the sedative but instead left him lying on the ground, making it harder to breathe.

The case against the paramedics was closely followed by firefighters and medical responders across the country. A firefighter union leader, Edward Kelly with the International Association of Fire Fighters, told reporters after Cichuniec's sentencing that prosecutors were unfairly criminalizing split-second decisions by responders.

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

“We failed to realize just how dangerous the restraint and chemical sedation of these individuals can be,” said Eric Jaeger, a paramedic and EMS educator in New Hampshire. “For better or worse the criminal convictions are focusing attention on the problem.”

The sole police officer convicted in McClain’s death, Randy Roedema, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide. He was sentenced to 14 months in jail in January. Two other officers who were indicted were acquitted following weekslong jury trials.

Colleen Slevin And Matthew Brown, The Associated Press