Elijah McClain: Governor names special prosecutor to probe death

Saying ‘I can’t breathe’, the 23-year-old unarmed Black man died after a scuffle with police in Colorado last year.

elijah mcclain
Elijah McClain died in the United States in August 2019; more than 2.7 million people have called for further investigation into his death [Family Handout]

The governor of Colorado has appointed the state’s attorney general as a special prosecutor to investigate the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died after an officer used a chokehold on him and medical responders injected him with the sedative ketamine in August 2019. 

Thursday’s announcement comes amid growing pressure on United States authorities to reexamine McClain’s death, with authorities reportedly receiving thousands of phone calls and emails. Meanwhile, more than 2.7 million people have signed an online petition calling for a new review, while #elijahmcclainwasmurdered has trended on social media. 

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Police involved in the Aurora, Colorado death had previously been cleared of wrongdoing by the Aurora Police Department, while the district attorney’s office has said an investigation found no criminality on behalf of the officers. However, attention has returned to the case in the US amid a national movement against institutional racism sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis said he decided to sign an executive order appointing state Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate McClain’s death after he was “moved by speaking with Elijah’s mother and her description of her son as a responsible and curious child who became a vegetarian to be healthier, and who could inspire the darkest soul.”

“Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern,” he said in a statement.

How did McClain die?

Police were called on Elijah McClain, 23, as he walked to his home in Aurora, Colorado from a local shop on August 24, 2019. Family later said he had gone to buy his brother an iced tea. 

The caller reported that McClain was acting suspiciously, wearing a ski mask and waving his arms in the air. Family later said McClain often wore a face mask because he had anaemia and became cold easily.

Three officers arrived at the scene and told McClain to stop, and when he did not comply the officers tackled him. One of the officers later said McClain had attempted to grab another officer’s gun during the struggle, according to the body camera footage. 

During the scuffle, an officer put McClain in a chokehold, causing him to vomit and briefly pass out, according to local reports. The officers then called emergency medical services, who administered ketamine to sedate McClain. 

McClain suffered a heart attack in the ambulance and died a week later after his family took him off life support. 

The Adams County Coroner’s Office conducted an autopsy, saying the manner and cause of death remain undetermined. The autopsy noted that intense physical exertion and a narrow coronary artery contributed to McClain’s death. 

What was said during the incident? 

Body camera footage released by authorities captured the audio of the encounter. Police said their cameras were knocked off during the scuffle. 

The footage shows police approaching McClain and telling him to stop. McClain does not immediately comply, and tells the officer “to let go of me”. 

Meanwhile, the officer tells McClain to stop tensing up.

“I am an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking,” McClain says. “I’m going home, leave me alone.”

An officer is then heard telling him to “relax or I’m going to have to change this situation”.

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A supporter holds up a shirt to call attention to the death of Elijah McClain in Denver, Colorado [David Zalubowski/The Associated Press]

McClain tells the officers: “You guys started to arrest me and I was stopping my music to listen. Let go of me.”

As an apparent struggle ensues, McClain can be heard gasping for air and crying.

An officer is heard saying “stop fighting or you’re going to get tazed”.

“I can’t breathe please stop,” says McClain. “My name is Elijah McClain. That’s all I was doing I was just going home … I’m an introvert, I’m different.”

McClain is later heard saying: “I’m so sorry, I have no gun, I don’t do that stuff, I don’t do any fighting … I don’t do violence, I don’t even kill flies, I don’t eat meat, I’m a vegetarian, I don’t judge people.”

As more officers respond, one is later heard threatening to unleash a dog on McClain if he keeps “messing around”.

Why were police cleared of wrongdoing? 

In November of last year, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young said an investigation into the incident found no criminal actions by the police. 

On Thursday, Young reiterated in a statement that the evidence did not amount to criminality, citing the inconclusive autopsy. He also said it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the force used was not justified. 

Meanwhile, after an internal review by the Aurora Police Department, investigators announced in February that the officers had acted “within policy and consistent with training”.

The city of Aurora had previously proposed an independent review of the case, but that plan stalled when it was revealed the person chosen to lead the inquiry was a former police officer. 

Aurora’s Mayor Mike Coffman announced on Wednesday that he has moved up a vote to choose a new independent investigator to lead a city probe into the actions of police and medical responders in McClain’s case.

Who was Elijah McClain?

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Friends have told local media that McClain had been working as a massage therapist in the area for four years, describing him as a gentle and idiosyncratic person who brought positive energy and was interested in natural healing. 

“He had a child-like spirit,” friend April Young, a manager at a massage shop, told the Sentinal. “Elijah McClain was not conditioned to the norms of America … He lived in his own little world. He was never into, like, fitting in. He just was who he was.”

Colleagues told the news site that McClain would often spend his lunch breaks playing guitar or violin, sometimes bringing the instruments to local animal shelters to play for cats and dogs.   

That love of music has led friends to suggest that McClain was likely dancing when the police were called on him.

Source: Al Jazeera