Paramedic sentenced to 5 years in prison in connection with Elijah McClain's death

Cichuniec was convicted of criminally negligent homicide.

March 1, 2024, 6:56 PM

Paramedic Peter Cichuniec was sentenced Friday to five years in prison with a three-year period of parole for assault in the second-degree unlawful administration of drugs and criminally negligent homicide in connection with the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.

He received one year on the criminally negligent homicide conviction that will run concurrent to the five years for the assault conviction. The sentence for his offenses was reportedly expected to be between 5-and 16 years behind bars.

"I have no reason to question the many letters received by the court that Mr. Cichuniec is an individual of good character," Judge Mark Warner said when delivering the sentence. "And to the extent that rehabilitative potential is even relevant here, in this context, he would have a high potential of doing so."

Cichuniec, alongside his co-defendant Jeremy Cooper, was accused of administering an excessive amount of ketamine to sedate McClain after an encounter with police on August 24, 2019.

Cichuniec was found guilty of assault in the second-degree unlawful administration of drugs and criminally negligent homicide in the last set of criminal charges related to the McClain case tried by the Colorado attorney general.

Cichuniec and Cooper were both acquitted of assault in the second degree with intent to cause bodily injury causing serious bodily injury. Cooper was found not guilty of assault in the second-degree unlawful administration of drugs.

They both had pleaded not guilty to their charges.

Paramedic Peter Cichuniec and his wife make their way to the courtroom in Brighton, CO, Dec. 1, 2023.
Philip B. Poston/AP

"When I was younger, being a firefighter was one of my many dreams for myself when I grew up," Sheneen McClain, Elijah McClain's mother, said during her testimony. "I have always looked at firefighters as local heroes until the day they assisted in murdering my son Elijah McClain."

McClain was confronted by police while walking home from a convenience store after a 911 caller told authorities they had seen someone "sketchy" in the area.

McClain was unarmed and wearing a ski mask at the time. His family says he had anemia, a blood condition that can make people feel cold more easily.

When officers arrived on the scene, they told McClain they had a right to stop him because he was "being suspicious."

In police body camera footage, McClain can be heard telling police he was going home, and that "I have a right to go where I am going."

Officer Nathan Woodyard placed McClain in a carotid hold and he and the other two officers on the scene moved McClain by force to the grass and restrained him.

When EMTs arrived at the scene, McClain was given a shot of 500 milligrams of ketamine for "rapid tranquilization in order to minimize time struggling," according to department policy, and was loaded into an ambulance where he had a heart attack, according to investigators.

Paramedics Jeremy Cooper, left, and Peter Cichuniec, right, at an arraignment in the Adams County district court at the Adams County Justice Center Jan. 20, 2023.
Andy Cross/medianews Group/the D/Denver Post via Getty Images

Cichuniec and Cooper diagnosed McClain with excited delirium, after approximately two minutes on the scene, according to the indictment.

Excited delirium is characterized by the FBI as a "potentially deadly medical condition involving psychotic behavior, elevated temperature, and an extreme fight-or-flight response by the nervous system."

State attorney Shannon Stevenson explained to the jury during the paramedics' trial that the only time paramedics are allowed to administer ketamine is if the patient is suffering from excited delirium and is a danger to themselves and others.

"Should more questions have been asked to ensure medical treatment?" Warner said."And should there have been a better medical assessment of Elijah McClain prior to the administration of ketamine? The answer is simply, yes."

McClain's cause of death, which was previously listed as "undetermined," was listed in an amended autopsy report as "complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint." The manner of death remained listed as "undetermined" as it was in the initial report.

McClain weighed 143 pounds, but was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for someone his size and overdosed, according to Adams County coroner's office pathologist Stephen Cina.

The prosecution argued that Cichuniec and Cooper failed to give McClain adequate medical assessments before administering the ketamine when they arrived at the scene. Prosecutors also criticized the paramedics for waiting 6 minutes before checking McClain for a pulse after administering the ketamine.

"They intentionally injected Elijah McClain, who was laying on the ground, barely moving, struggling to breathe, with an overdose of ketamine without following a single step of their training and protocols," Stevenson said during Cichuniec and Cooper's trial. "They conducted no assessment. They didn't speak a word to Elijah. They didn't put a finger on him. And then they overdosed him with 150% of the dose someone his size should have gotten. And then they failed to even check on him until this pulse was gone. They knew better."

Cooper's defense attorney argued there is a lack of protocol for the situation these paramedics found themselves in, citing the aggravated police presence, the way paramedics say they had to estimate McClain's weight with police on top of him, the way to determine who had authority at the scene, and the protocols to accurately assess if a patient is suffering from excited delirium.

Michael Lowe, Cichuniec's attorney, explained to the jury that the reason the paramedics didn't check his vitals again until he was on the gurney was because of protocol.

McClain died on Aug. 30, 2019, three days after doctors pronounced him brain dead and he was removed from life support, officials said.

"I wish I could tell Miss McLean that Elijah would be okay," Cichuniec said while in tears during his testimony. "I'm very sorry that Elijah is no longer with us and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Mrs. McClain tragically lost a son and we also lost a patient and I don't take that lightly,"

Former police officer Randy Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and assault in the third degree in McClain's death.

Two other officers, Jason Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard, were found not guilty on charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Rosenblatt was also acquitted on charges of assault in the second degree.