Amid a growing national outcry, Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Thursday appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser as special prosecutor to investigate the 23-year-old Elijah McClain dies following a violent encounter with Aurora police last year.
Attorneys chose not to charge the three Aurora officers involved in the incident, which culminated with McClain being placed in a strangulation and then sedated by medical staff, after refusing to stop for police to respond to a report from a suspicious person walking down the street.
The governor’s office said if the facts supported the prosecution, Weiser would also criminalize anyone whose actions caused McClain’s death.
“I was moved as I spoke with Elijah’s mother and her description of her son as a responsible and inquisitive child who went vegetarian to be healthier and who could inspire the darker soul,” Polis said. in a press release. “His friends describe him as a gentle peacemaker who worked as a massage therapist and loved to play the violin. Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice on his behalf to a statewide concern.
Renewed attention to McClain’s death – through national media coverage and social media activism – comes amid a nationwide toll with police brutality against black communities and racial inequality following the death last month of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“Anytime someone dies after meeting with law enforcement, the community deserves a thorough investigation,” Weiser said in a statement. “Our investigation will be thorough, fact-driven, and worthy of the public’s trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.
The Colorado attorney general’s office statement ended by saying that there would be no further comment on the case until the findings were announced, citing the need to remain impartial.
The decision to launch a state-level inquest comes as Aurora grapples with her own attempts to re-examine McClain’s death, which was not declared a homicide by the county coroner.
About two weeks ago, the leaders of the city of Aurora canceled a contract for a third party investigation in McClain’s death in police custody after city council members raised concerns that a former police officer was hired for the job.
Unbeknownst to McClain’s family, city council or taxpayers, the leaders of the Town of Aurora in February hired lawyer Eric Daigle, a former Connecticut state police officer, to investigate the death. City manager Jim Twombly publicly announced the hiring this month for the first time, then canceled the contract the next day outcry from the community.
Representing the McClain family, attorney Mari Newman said the family and community have called for an independent investigation into the case since last fall.
“It was only recently, in response to the outcry from millions around the world and the scrutiny of the international media, that Aurora finally claimed to have hired a so-called ‘independent investigator’, including the media. quickly revealed that he was in fact a former police officer turned lawyer, whose legal practice is dedicated to defending police who use excessive force, “Newman said in a statement.” It is time for a responsible adult steps in, and I’m glad the governor is showing leadership. Elijah’s family is so grateful to the millions who have stood up to speak out against the murder of their beloved son by police and doctors in Aurora . It shouldn’t take a massive petition and international media attention to hold law enforcement accountable for the murder of an innocent black man. “
Following Polis’ opening of a state inquiry on Thursday, Mayor Mike Coffman noted in a Tweet that Aurora was a self-governing city and that he would continue to schedule a vote at the city council meeting July 6 to advance an independent municipal investigation and to decide who will conduct that investigation.
DA defends his decision
Earlier Thursday, Dave Young, the prosecutor who determined that there was no wrongdoing by Aurora police or medical responders in McClain’s death, issued a statement defending its decision as the case receives national attention and renewed calls for justice.
Young called McClain’s death “tragic” and “unnecessary,” but added that his work was limited to whether criminal charges should be laid against anyone involved.
“Forensic evidence revealed the cause of death was undetermined,” Young wrote. “Specifically, the pathologist who performed the autopsy said he was unable to conclude that the actions of a law enforcement officer caused Mr. McClain’s death. In order to prove any form of homicide in the state of Colorado, it is mandatory that the prosecution prove that the accused caused the death of the victim. For these reasons, I am of the opinion that the evidence does not support the homicide claim. “
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who sponsored the recently passed police reform bill, applauded Polis’ decision to appoint a special prosecutor.
“After watching some of Dave Young’s interviews, it became very clear to me that he wasn’t going to do anything,” Herod said. “I’m happy that he (Polis) has taken a step in the right direction. I still 100% believe that all of this change came from protests… we have to keep the pressure on.
On August 24, Aurora police officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema responded to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving their arms while walking along Billings Street. Family members said McClain often wore masks outside due to the blood anemia, which made him easily cold.
McClain refused to stop when police first approached him. The 140-pound man was tackled and pinned to the ground, with officers using a “carotid takeover” on him. McClain asked the police to stop, advising officers that he could not breathe and that he was vomiting repeatedly.
Medics then injected McClain with heavy sedative ketamine, and he suffered cardiac arrest on the ambulance ride to a local hospital. McClain was declared brain dead a few days later.
“As a father, my heart breaks for the McClain family,” Polis said in a statement. “Everyone in Colorado should be able to come home safely from the convenience store or just be in their own neighborhood listening to headphones. Sadly, I know that’s not what a lot of people – especially young people of color – feel about us today, because I’ve heard it directly from them. We need to do a better job, and at the bare minimum, they deserve a deeper examination of the matter. “
Denver Post writer Alex Burness contributed to this report.