Each defendant faces one count of manslaughter and one count of criminally negligent homicide, with separate individual additional charges.
The indictments come two years after McClain’s death, a case that initially drew little interest outside of Aurora. That changed nine months later when George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis prompted a wave of scrutiny of the deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police.
McClain was walking home in August 2019 when he was detained by police responding to a 911 call that reported the 23-year-old massage therapist as “sketchy.”
McClain had on headphones and was wearing a ski mask over his face because of a chronic health condition and did not immediately stop for police. Officers later tackled him and placed him in a carotid chokehold, a restraint maneuver that restricts blood flow to the brain. Responding paramedics injected him with a powerful sedative, and McClain went into cardiac arrest en route to the hospital. He died several days later.
McClain’s death had already prompted a string of changes and accountability efforts before Wednesday’s indictments were announced. In June 2020, Colo. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed Colorado’s police accountability law that, most notably, banned the use of chokeholds like the one police used on McClain. A month later, Aurora’s interim police chief fired three officers who mocked McClain’s death in a reenactment, while city leaders hired a civil rights lawyer to commission an independent investigation and probe of the incident and the Aurora Police Department.
State and local officials have opened probes into the Aurora department’s policies and potential civil rights violations while the city of Aurora temporarily suspended the use of ketamine by first responders; McClain’s death raised questions about the practice after an investigation found the heavy sedative was used in 17 different incidents in 2019 alone.
After McClain’s death became a national rallying cry, local advocates continued to apply pressure to state and city officials, holding memorials, protests and musical vigils. Violins in particular came to symbolize the gentleness of a man known to play the instrument for anxious shelter animals on his lunch break and contrast it to the violence of his death.
Aurora police were sued after confronting protesters at a June 2020 violin vigil with pepper spray.
Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to pursue charges immediately after the incident, calling it “preventable” but saying there was not enough evidence to prove the officers intentionally killed McClain.
Polis later appointed Weiser to probe the case as a special prosecutor. Weiser said during a Wednesday news conference that his office had the option to either review Young’s records on the case or convene a statewide grand jury to investigate.
“We decided to take the latter course because whenever a person dies after an encounter with law enforcement, the community deserves a thorough investigation,” Weiser said. “Mr. McClain’s family deserves it. And justice requires it.”
The grand jury, which for months had been unable to meet because of covid-19 restrictions, handed down the indictments last Thursday. Announcing them on Wednesday, Weiser detailed the additional charges against the five defendants, which include second-degree assault charges for officers Roedema and Rosenblatt and both paramedics. The paramedics also face second-degree assault charges for injecting McClain with ketamine without consent.
Weiser acknowledged the prosecution will be difficult — “these types of cases always are” — but stressed it would “advance the rule of law and the commitment that everyone is accountable and equal under the law.”
The Aurora Police Union on Wednesday defended the officer’s actions after the indictments were announced saying McClain was not murdered by officers and blamed McClain for his death, faulting his “decision to violently resist arrest and a preexisting heart condition.”
“He was alive and talking when the officers turned him over to EMS. There is no evidence that APD officers caused his death.”
On Wednesday morning, McClain’s mother, Sheneen, told the Denver Post that she was “overwhelmed” by the indictments but acknowledged the long road ahead.
“It’s been a two-year battle just to get to this point,” she told the paper. “It’s huge to know they’re indicted. But I know it’s not over. We still have to go to trial.”
McClain’s family is also pursuing a federal civil rights lawsuit in his death.