The mother of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died last summer after being confronted by police in Aurora, Colorado, says her son was murdered. After nearly 3 million people signed a petition calling for a reexamination of McClain’s case, Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Thursday appointed the state’s attorney general as a special prosecutor.
Attorney General Phil Weiser will now investigate McClain’s death, and press charges “if the facts support prosecution,” Polis said in a statement.
Sheneen McClain described her son as a massage therapist who “wanted to heal” others. “He not only healed others, he healed himself,” she told CBS News correspondent David Begnaud. “He was able to accept love and give love in varying forms.”
“They murdered him. They are bullies with badges,” she said.
In his statement, Polis said he was “moved” after speaking with Elijah’s mother. “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. “Now more than ever, we must do everything within our power to foster public trust and confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”
Weiser echoed Polis’ statement, and promised a “thorough” investigation “worthy of public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.”
“Elijah McClain should be alive today,” Weiser said. “His life mattered and his death was tragic.”
The district attorney investigating the case, Dave Young, said McClain dismissed repeated requests from police for him to stop on the night of the incident last August. His family says he was only listening to music while walking home when police approached him.
The report compiled by Young quotes McClain as saying: “Can you leave me alone, you guys started to arrest me and I was stopping my music to listen, now let me go.”
McClain was wearing a ski mask at the time. According to his family, due to some previous physical issues, it wasn’t uncommon for McClain to wear a mask to give him comfort and ease. McClain can be heard on the officer’s body cameras saying, “I’m just different. That’s all.”
Young says McClain was carrying a plastic bag and when police tried to pat him down, he refused. The situation escalated further after Officer Randy Roedema said McClain was reaching for one of the officer’s guns. All three officers then took McClain down to the ground, according to the report.
Attorney Mari Newman, who represents the family, contended that there would be evidence if McClain had grabbed the gun. “Don’t you think if he really had grabbed someone’s gun, we would see fingerprints that have been lifted from the gun?” she said.
When asked if he found any evidence that corroborates Roedema’s claim, Young said he had “no evidence to contradict that.”
McClain is then heard pleading with police as they tackle him and put him in a chokehold. “Let me go, no let me go, I am an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking,” McClain said. The officer who allegedly put McClain in a chokehold, Nathan Woodyard, later told a detective that he thought McClain might have weapons on him, but that he would not allow himself to be searched.
“I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff,” McClain said to the officers before going unconscious after being restrained with an apparent chokehold. No weapon was ever found.
Paramedics later arrived at the scene and a medic gave McClain ketamine to sedate him. McClain was then taken to the hospital but suffered cardiac arrest that led to “anoxic encephalopathy,” or loss of blood flow to the brain, and was pronounced brain dead three days later.
According to the DA’s report, the coroner was unable to determine a cause of death — but didn’t rule out the possibility that ketamine contributed. The coroner wrote that McClain was given a “therapeutic level” of ketamine, but could have had an “idiosyncratic” reaction to the drug.
Young made the initial decision not to charge the officers. When asked if the officer’s actions were justified, he said: “Legally, yes.”
“They could have done a million things differently,” Young said. “He didn’t need to die. And the fact that he died does not warrant the basis for criminal charges.”
Millions of people are now demanding that the officers are taken off duty. CBS Denver reports that the District Attorney’s Office has received more than 10,000 phone calls and 2,000 emails asking for the three officers linked to McClain’s death to be charged.
Newman, the family attorney, commended Polis for appointing a special prosecutor. “It is time for a responsible adult to step in, and I am glad that the governor is showing leadership,” she said in a statement. “Elijah’s family is so thankful for the millions of people who have stood up to denounce the murder of their beloved son by Aurora Police and medics. It should not take a massive petition and international media attention to hold law enforcement accountable for killing an innocent black man.”
In a statement released Thursday, Young called McClain’s death “tragic and unnecessary,” but reiterated his belief that the evidence does not support criminal charges.
“While the officers no doubt used force in this incident, based on the evidence and the law applicable at the time of Mr. McClain’s death, the prosecution cannot disprove the officers’ reasonable belief in the necessity to use force,” he wrote.
“Ultimately, while I may share the vast public opinion that Elijah McClain’s death could have been avoided, it is not my role to file criminal charges based on opinion, but rather, on the evidence revealed from the investigation and applicable Colorado law.”