What happened to Elijah McClain? Case draws new attention amid nationwide protests

McClain was killed nearly a year ago in Colorado after police responded to a call about a suspicious person. Having anemia, he'd worn a ski mask to stay warm while going to the convenience store.
9:06 | 07/01/20

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Transcript for What happened to Elijah McClain? Case draws new attention amid nationwide protests
Now, a new cry for racial justice. We caution you, some of the images are disturbing. Here's Deborah Roberts. I don't think my anger will change. Reporter: Nearly a year ago, her 23-year-old son Elijah died just days after police confronted him as we walked home from a convenience store. His family calls it excessive force. Officials called it justified. Elijah's case was closed. Disappearing from headlines until now. To be clear, I'm not just calling it assault. I'm calling it murder. Reporter: In the wake of George Floyd's death, protests have filled streets from coast to coast. Even in Elijah's home state of Colorado. It hurts. Everybody is screaming names, but I'm like, last year it would have made a big difference. The George Floyd case was a game-changer, opening up the door for all sorts of stuff with law enforcement. Reporter: This weekend, demonstrations shut down a highway, and police used a pepper spray to break up a peaceful vigil. He was always the introvert, always one to observe. No way, this is a little Reporter: He expressed himself through art. He loved knowledge. He taught himself to play the violin. Reporter: By last year, he was working as a massage therapist. He had plans to go to college. Those who knew him described him as gentle. On August 24th, 2019, he went to a convenience store. You can see him wearing a ski mask. Something his family says he did because he had anemia, which made him become cold easily. He didn't know that someone called 911 to report a suspicious person. He might be a good person or a bad person. Were any weapons involved or mentioned? No. There was nothing about the 911 call that suggested an urgent and violent situation. They reported a black guy who was outside. Reporter: As Elijah walked home, he was stopped by three police officers. Stop. Stop. Stop, I have a right to stop you, because you're being suspicious. Reporter: The officers immediately grab Elijah. I'm an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I'm speaking. No, we're going to talk to you. Now, let go of me. Reporter: Within moments, two of the officers' body cameras fall off. The third captures a bit more before it falls off. There was absolutely no reason why the officers should have stopped him in the first place. They grabbed him, tackled him, and threw him into the ground. Reporter: You hear him say three fateful words, words that have become a national rallying cry. I can't breathe. Just relax. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. This is the same thing that Eric Garner said, the same thing that George Floyd would say. This refrain, I can't breathe, is not only a desperate cry for help, it's a kind of request to allow some form of mercy and humane treatment in the midst of what becomes a death sequence. Reporter: The officers reported two sometimes they used a carotid restraint, commonly known as a choke hold. He's begging for his life. Saying I'm a pacifist, I'm a vegetarian. I don't have guns. I don't judge people. It's absolutely heart-wrenching listening to it. Reporter: The officers said Elijah resisted contact, and they claim he reached for one of the officers' guns. Dave young is the district attorney covering the city of Aurora. I have to look at the facts as a police officer's perspective. Because I know the investigations. I know the tragedy of this death to Mr. Mcclain and his family. At the time, the officers knew nothing about Mr. Mcclain. They knew there was a 911 call, we need to investigate the suspicious person, and things escalated to what we all know happened. Reporter: Eventually, the officers all recover their fallen body cameras. That's fine. Stop. Oh, yeah, sorry. I wasn't trying to do that. I can't breathe correctly because -- Reporter: The family says the lack of clear footage was intentional. You see an officer picking the camera up, and he says, get that away from me, dude. So he's intentionally trying to stay off of the body camera. As they inflict multiple different kinds of force on Elijah Mcclain. Reporter: When emts arrive, they dose the 140-pound Elijah with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He had a heart attack in the ambulance, and was rushed to the hospital and put on life support. Eventually, doctors declared him brain dead. Two days later, he was taken off life support. He's always going to be gone. There's no way -- I can forgive, but I'm not going to ever forget. Reporter: Dave young was in charge of determining if any charges would be filed. I don't condone the officers' actions out there. In fact, I wish they had done something differently. If someone says I can't breathe, do it, get off of him. But again, that, I have no indication, let to the cause of Mr. Mcclain's death. Reporter: After three months, young issued his decision, clearing the offices of any wrongdoing. Do you stand by your decision not to charge the officers? Yes, and it's unfortunate that people feel their opinions will change the facts and the law. Reporter: Do you feel the officers' actions led to his death? That I don't know. The burden of proof is upon me. If I can't prove to a jury of 12 that the actions caused his death, I can't file criminal charges. White men with weapons often get arrested without any James Holmes, a white man, a mass murderer, was arrested without incident. Somehow police manage to locate a level of discipline and care and patience with white suspects that they don't for black suspects. Even ones that are unarmed. Reporter: That's the issue that galvanized the nation. Since George Floyd's death, attention has been placed on older cases like Elijah's. Last Thursday, Colorado's governor appointed the attorney general as a special prosecutor to investigate Elijah's death. Public outcry matters. When people pay attention, institutions will respond differently. Reporter: All three officers have been reassigned. Justice to me is conviction. They need to suffer. Life in prison would be great for me. Honestly, they need to be convicted, because it was unjust. Reporter: She realizes Elijah has become more than just her son. He's become a symbol. They're going to keep saying his name, shout it louder every day. The revolution is now. Ain't no more waiting for it.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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