Attorney general ordered to investigate death of 23-year-old Black man put in a neck hold in Aurora
Colorado’s governor has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the death of Elijah McClain – a 23-year-old Black man who was put into a neck hold by police in suburban Denver last year – after a petition calling for justice gained almost 3m signatures in just three weeks.
Governor Jared Polis signed an executive order directing the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, to investigate McClain’s death and possibly prosecute those involved. McClain’s name has recently become a rallying cry during the national reckoning over racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd and others.
“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.
He said he had spoken with McClain’s mother and was moved by her description of her son as a “responsible and curious child … who could inspire the darkest soul”.
Police in suburban Aurora received a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street on 24 August. Police say McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers confronted him and tried to take him into custody.
One of the officers put him in a specialized hold, pressing against his carotid artery and cutting off blood to the brain, a practice that has been banned in several places in the wake of Floyd’s death on 25 May under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the global protests that followed.
Police body-camera video shows McClain telling officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.” Those words have appeared on scores of social media posts demanding justice for McClain.
McClain was kept on the ground for 15 minutes, then paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him down. McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was declared brain dead on 27 August. He was taken off life support three days later.
A forensic pathologist working for the coroner could not determine what exactly led to his death but said physical exertion during the confrontation probably contributed.
McClain was a massage therapist who planned to go to college, his younger sister, Samara McClain, told the Denver Post shortly after his death. She said her brother was walking to a corner store to get tea for a cousin and often wore masks when he was outside because he had a blood condition that caused him to get cold easily.
McClain’s friends and family said he was as a spiritual seeker, pacifist, oddball, vegetarian, athlete, and peacemaker who was exceedingly gentle, according to the Colorado Sentinel.
Three officers were placed on paid administrative leave while the incident was investigated by Denver and Aurora police, as well as the district attorney’s office.
The district attorney, Dave Young, said in a letter to the then Aurora police chief, Nick Metz, that he could not find indisputable evidence that Aurora officers or others used “unjustified” force and that it was “improbable for the prosecution to prove cause of death beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury”.
Many citizens and activists and some lawmakers in Colorado have long protested the outcome. McClain’s case resurfaced during local and nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other Black men and women after confrontations with police.
An Instagram account, “justiceforelijahmcclain”. has more than 150,000 followers and a hashtag with more than 17,000 posts. A Change.org petition demanding justice for McClain had nearly 3 million signatures late Thursday.
Colorado’s attorney general said in a statement that the special prosecutor’s investigation would be thorough and “worthy of public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system”.