While it still lists the manner of death as “undetermined” — not a homicide or accident — the report could intensify prosecutions of police and first responders in McClain’s death and reignite calls for greater accountability for the city call.
Police have no legal reason to put Elijah McClain in asphyxiation, death inquest finds
McLean, a massage therapist and self-taught musician, was taken into police custody while walking home in August 2019 when he received a 911 call saying someone was acting “sketchy”. Police caught him and placed him in a carotid choke, which restricts blood flow to the brain. Paramedics injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He suffered a cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died a few days later.
In a revised autopsy report, forensic pathologist Stephen Cina said that for McClain, who is about 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds, the ketamine overdose.
According to Cina, a police review of body camera footage, which was not provided during the preliminary autopsy, showed McClain was “extremely sedated” within minutes. He said he believed McClain had difficulty breathing while lying on a stretcher and that the cessation of breathing was “imminent”.
“Simply put, this dose of ketamine was too much for the person, resulting in an overdose, even though his blood ketamine levels were consistent with ‘therapeutic’ blood concentrations,” Cina wrote. “I believe Mr. McClain would probably still be alive if he hadn’t taken ketamine.”
It’s unclear whether the blockage in the carotid artery contributed to his death, Cina said, noting that medical literature suggests it would not. He said he saw no signs on McLean’s neck that he died of asphyxiation and that McLean was able to speak after police released him.
Officer mocking Elijah McClain’s choking death sustains shooting
Cina also noted that McClain was “alive and responsive to painful stimuli” prior to receiving the ketamine injection.
“I think if he hadn’t had this injection, he might have recovered,” he said.
Deaths related to ketamine poisoning are often classified as accidents, but Cina said that approach would remain “uncertain” because other factors may have played a role, the report said.
He added: “I acknowledge that other reasonable forensic pathologists trained elsewhere may have developed their own philosophies about death in custody, and they may think that the manner of death in such cases is either homicide or homicide. Accident.”
An Aurora police spokesman said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post that the department is “fully cooperating with the investigation.” Representatives for Aurora emergency services did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Saturday morning.
Prosecutors initially refused to charge anyone in McClain’s death, citing the lack of evidence in the initial autopsy.
Some officials, medical experts and criminal justice advocates have criticized prosecutors for not seeking a second medical opinion to avoid an “undetermined” manner of death.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) appointed a special prosecutor to reopen the case and appointed a grand jury to consider criminal charges.
Grand jury indicts police and paramedics in 2019 death of Elijah McClain
During the proceedings, the investigation into McClain’s death came under greater scrutiny when Colorado Public Radio reported that the county coroner met with police before the autopsy was released and police investigators were present during the examination.
In September 2021, charges were announced against three Aurora police officers and two paramedics. The defendants are expected to file a plea in November.
Evidence that emerged during the grand jury proceedings prompted the coroner to make changes to the original autopsy report, but those changes were kept secret for more than a year.
The revised version, released Friday, was made public by a court order after Colorado Public Radio and several other outlets sued to obtain it.
McClain’s case received little interest outside Colorado until May 2020, when then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd . McClain’s death became a rallying cry during the months of protests that followed. Friends and family remember him as a gentle man who would use his lunch breaks to play the violin for animals at the local shelter.
Aurora agreed last year to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit by McClain’s family. The city also banned the use of chokeholds in his arrest and is considering a ban on ketamine.