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US paramedic sentenced to 5 years in jail for McClain death

March 2, 2024

A court in Colorado has sentenced a paramedic to five years in jail for his role in the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain. The Black man died after police put him under restraint and medics injected him with ketamine.

Sheneen McClain, left, the mother of Elijah McClain, and a supporter leave the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton
McClain's mother Sheneen raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom after the sentencingImage: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via AP

In a rare prosecution of medical responders, a court in the US state of Colorado has sentenced a paramedic to five years in prison after he was convicted in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.

The young Black man was put in a chokehold by US police as medics injected him with a powerful sedative.

A jury in December convicted Peter Cichuniec and fellow paramedic Jeremy Cooper of criminally negligent homicide for injecting McClain with ketamine, ultimately blamed for killing the unarmed 23-year-old.

Cichuniec was also convicted for second-degree assault for administering a drug without consent or a legitimate medical purpose.

On Friday, Judge Mark Warner sentenced Cichuniec to five years in prison for the assault conviction, and added a one year sentence — to be served concurrently — for criminally negligent homicide.

The 51-year-old defendant had faced up to 16 years in prison for those crimes.

McClain's death

In August 2019, McClain was stopped by police in the city of Aurora as they responded to reports of a "suspicious" Black male "acting weird" in the street and wearing a ski mask.

McClain had been listening to music with earphones on and appeared not to have seen the approaching officers.

The ensuing struggle as police sought to restrain and detain him lasted some 20 minutes, at one point McClain was put in a chokehold and he was ultimately injected with 500 milligrams of ketamine.

He suffered a cardiac arrest in the ambulance shortly after the arrest and was taken off life support three days later.

McClain's family later told the media that he had been out to buy  iced tea, and often wore the mask to keep himself warm because he suffered from anemia.

McClain's death was among the several cases of Black people dying in custody or at the hands of US police. The building tensions over this flared up after George Floyd was choked to death by a group of police officers in May 2020.

His death and others have also raised questions about the use of ketamine to subdue struggling suspects while the prosecution sent shock waves through the ranks of paramedics across the United States.

Second sentence tied to case

Following the sentencing on Friday, McClain's mother Sheneen raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom, in a gesture that she has also displayed in previous hearings. 

Before his sentencing, Cichuniec said he was "truly sorry" to Sheheen for the loss of her son's life.

Meanwhile, Cichuniec's partner, Cooper, is due for sentencing in April.

Their joint trial was the last of three in the McClain case.

A police officer was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 14 months in jail in January while two other police officers were acquitted.

#BlackLivesMatter: A campaign goes viral

dvv/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)