What does it take to reopen an investigation into a police-involved death of a young Black man after the district attorney refuses to press criminal charges and the officers have been cleared of any wrongdoing?
In Aurora, Colo., the answer is millions of people signing an online petition, thousands of calls to local and state elected officials and intense social media pressure compounded by national media coverage. All as the nation erupts in grassroots protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
On Thursday, nearly a year after the death of Elijah McClain who died in police custody, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor to “determine whether the facts justify criminal charges against members of law enforcement” involved in the arrest.
“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,” Polis said in a statement.
“Now more than ever, we must do something within our power to foster public trust and confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” he added.
New Investigation Is A Rare Step
Polis acknowledged it is an “exceptional” step to disregard a district attorney decision not to pursue criminal charges. But the governor explained previous investigations omitted pertinent details about the incident.
“The State rarely steps in to investigate, and potentially prosecute, an incident over the individual decisions of district attorneys. This, however, is the truly exceptional case where widely reported facts are not addressed in any current investigation,” Polis wrote.
“These omissions merit a supplemental evaluation of the case by an independent prosecutor and thus warrant this Executive Order.”
‘He Looks Sketchy. He Might Be A Good Person Or A Bad Person’
On Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was walking home from a local convenience carrying a bottle of iced tea.
He was wearing a ski mask and listening to music on the kind of headphones that fit snugly inside the ear.
McClain, who was anemic, often wore a ski mask when he felt cold, his family has said.
His waving arms caught the attention of a man named Juan who was driving down the same street and he called 911.
“He looks sketchy. He might be a good person or a bad person,” Juan told the operator.
That was enough to put out a call for officers to respond to the scene.
From what little is available of the body cam video footage, officers didn’t waste much time confronting McClain. At least four officers showed up, getting out of their respective squad cars calling for the 23-year-old to stop walking.
It’s unclear if McClain could hear them or not, but after some confused exchanges, he stopped walking. He appears taken aback by the officer’s sudden appearance.
The officers can’t be heard offering an explanation for the stop, although they can be seen surrounding the man. Blocking his path.
When a few hands reached out to grab at him, McClain recoiled, saying, “I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
Officers repeatedly ordered McClain to “stop tensing up.”
From there, the camera footage becomes a jumble. However, even without the visuals the at least two body cameras capture audio of the scene.
McClain is pinned down for several minutes in a carotid hold. He can be heard moaning, sobbing, repeating that “it hurts” and pleading with the officers to stop.
“I was just going home. I don’t have a gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t even eat meat.”
“I’m just different,” he whimpers.
Throughout McClain’s anguished monologue, the officers can be heard talking to each other. Going over the initial 911 call and saying that McClain showed “incredible strength.”
They seem to ignore McClain entirely.
Minutes later, one officer says to another, “Move your camera, dude.”
Then one can be heard claiming that McClain tried to go for his colleague’s gun.
That leads to more grunts and sounds of a scuffle.
“We have his arm,” one officers says. Another calls back, “I have his other arm.
Someone picks up a body camera and McClain can be seen lying on his side with both hands restrained behind his back, and one officer jamming his knee on the man’s torso.
When McClain attempts to roll over to vomit, they shout at him to “stop fighting us.”
“If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out here and he’s going to bite you,” says an officer standing over McClain.
McClain proceeds to vomit.
“I can’t fix myself,” he says weakly.
McClain’s body goes limp and he passes out.
Eventually one officer asks, “Are you OK?”
But he’s not asking McClain. He’s speaking to the officer on top of him.
“Yeah, I’m good,” the officer says shifting his weight.
When the members of Aurora Fire Rescue later arrived on the scene, a fire medic injected McClain with ketamine to calm him.
Officers tell the medic they believe McClain is on drugs.
“Whatever he’s on, he has incredible strength,” one officer says. (McClain’s autopsy revealed he had marijuana his system.)
More than 20 minutes after the confrontation began, McClain was placed into an ambulance where he stopped breathing. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and on August 30 he was removed from life support.
Public Confidence In Law Enforcement Is Low
“I 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,” Polis said Thursday.
He continued: “Public confidence in our law enforcement process is incredibly important now more than ever,” Polis said. “A fair and objective process free from real or perceived bias for investigating officer-involved killings is critical.”
Earlier this month, attorney Eric Daigle, an independent investigator who was looking into the case, was removed over concerns that he may be biased. Members of the public pressed local officials for his removal after learning Daigle was previously a police officer in Connecticut and has subsequently defended law enforcement agencies in other legal cases.
The officers involved in the fatal altercation — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema — were placed on administrative leave for about three months following McClain’s death.
All three were cleared of wrongdoing by the Aurora Police Department in February. Police department officials determined that everyone involved had used an appropriate level of force throughout the confrontation and that it was consistent with training.
The Adams County Coroner’s Office concluded that he died from “undetermined causes.” But it left open the possibility that the police carotid hold and ketamine injection may have contributed to his death.
“Based on my review of the EMS reports, hospital records, bodycam footage from the restraining officers, and the autopsy findings, I cannot determine which manner of death is most likely,” the coroner report said, according to 9 News.
Ultimately, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to file criminal charges. And as recently as Wednesday, Young told the news station he had no grounds to reopen the investigation.
“I’m not trying to justify the officers’ actions. I’m only saying I cannot prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” Young added.
McClain Family Seeks Justice
“They murdered him. They are bullies with badges,” McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, told CBS News on Thursday.
Mari Newman, a lawyer for McClain’s family, told NBC News that the family is dismayed it has taken a national outcry to prompt officials to reinvestigate.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes international media pressure and petitions signed by two million people before the elected officials would do their jobs, and by elected officials I mean the DA and the mayor,” Newman said.