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Trial begins for 2 Colorado police officers charged in the death of Elijah McClain


Opening arguments started yesterday in the trial of two Aurora, Colo., police officers charged in the killing of Elijah McClain. McClain died while in police custody in 2019 after he had been put in a chokehold and earlier given high doses of a sedative. His death was one of several that gained national attention during the protests against police violence in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. Now his case is finally going to trial. Allison Sherry from Colorado Public Radio has followed this case for three years and is with us now. Hi, Allison.


FADEL: So you were in court yesterday. You watched opening arguments. What were the key points?

SHERRY: Yeah. You know, this is the first of three trials that are scheduled for McClain's death. This first trial is for the two backup officers who were the second on the scene when McClain was stopped by police. Prosecutors will - made an argument that they didn't follow their training during this stop, that they used two carotid holds on him - it's a type of hold around the neck - when they should have used just one and, most importantly, that they didn't listen to his pleas for help. McClain said he couldn't breathe seven times when officers were kneeling on him, and all of this was captured on body cameras. Now, the attorneys for the police officers are going to point fingers at the paramedics, whose trials are coming up later on. But those defense attorneys will point out the autopsy says McClain died because of ketamine, which was given to him. They will also say that if not for the racial justice movements in 2020, this trial wouldn't be going on right now, that this is a political prosecution. They will also bring up witnesses who will testify that they followed their training.

FADEL: Now, you described a little bit of it, but remind us of the details of what happened to Elijah McClain, how an encounter with police appeared to have led to his death.

SHERRY: Yeah. In 2019, Elijah McClain was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora. A passing motorist saw him and called 911, saying he saw a suspicious-looking person. That's when police stopped him, gave him two carotid holds, brought him to the ground, kneeled on him and then called paramedics, who gave him a large dose of ketamine for his body size. He died a few days later in the hospital. He was never suspected of any crime.

FADEL: Now it's 2023. This happened in 2019. Why did it take so long for the case to get to court?

SHERRY: Right. You know, essentially the case was closed in 2019. The DA at the time declined to prosecute the officers, and everyone went back to work. But when George Floyd was murdered the following year, McClain's name became synonymous with police violence against unarmed Black people. Colorado's governor reopened the case and appointed a special prosecutor. And here we are now. I'll also note that his death sparked a host of police accountability reform laws at the state legislature, including a ban on those carotid holds. So McClain has made a difference already, but in a sense, he hasn't had any justice himself.

FADEL: Now, I know you've been covering this for three years. You've spoken to Elijah's family before. Were they in the court yesterday?

SHERRY: Yes, his mother was in the court yesterday. And she's not giving interviews at the - during the trials, but she did watch opening arguments where there were photos of Elijah and photos - and a lot of body camera footage played. And she wiped tears from her eyes during that time, just thinking about her son, I'm sure.

FADEL: That's Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry. Allison, thank you.

SHERRY: Thank you.

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Allison Sherry