Colorado Governor Jared Polis appointed state Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate the death of Elijah McClain’s death, a 23-year-old Black man who died in police custody.
After an online petition gained more than 3 million signatures, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor to re-examine the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in police custody last year.
Polis announced Thursday that he signed an executive order designating Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate McClain’s death and determine whether facts support criminal prosecution. The governor said he was moved by speaking with McClain’s mother who described her son as “a responsible and curious child” who could “inspire the darkest soul.”
“Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern,” Polis said in a release.
What you need to know: More than 2 million sign ‘Justice For Elijah McClain’ petition nearly a year after his death
The news comes after Polis signed a sweeping police accountability bill last week which bars the use of chokeholds and carotid holds, which he called “a step in the right direction.”
McClain’s death gained national attention in the wake of the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others which sparked massive, nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Around 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2019, McClain, a massage therapist who enjoyed playing the violin, was walking home from a convenience store.
The Aurora Police Department received a call of a “suspicious man” wearing a ski mask, according to a release. Officers arrived and tried to stop McClain, who they said was “actively resisting” and trying to grab one of their guns. They wrestled him to the ground and put him in a carotid hold, applying pressure around his neck, restricting blood flow to the brain.
McClain briefly went unconscious. The fire department and paramedics were called to assist and injected McClain with ketamine to sedate him.
In the more than three hours of body camera footage of the arrest, McClain can be seen being held down on the ground, vomiting, sobbing and saying, “I can’t breathe.” At one point, an officer also tells McClain: “If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out and he’s going to dog bite you.”
McClain was loaded into the ambulance where the paramedic determined he was not breathing and did not have a pulse.
He was declared brain dead three days later and was removed from life support on Aug. 30. An autopsy was unable to determine if his death was an accident, due to natural causes or a homicide. The Adams County Coroner’s Office report listed several contributing factors including the combination of intense physical exertion and a narrow left coronary artery.
The district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges in November. A police force review board said in February that the officers had a lawful reason to contact McClain and that the use of force during the altercation, including the carotid hold, “was within policy and consistent with training.”
As the petition calling for an investigation gained millions of signatures, the district attorney’s office received thousands of emails and calls and the police department received hundreds of complaints.
“I don’t open up investigations based on petitions,” district attorney Adams County district attorney Dave Young told Colorado Politics. “Obviously, if there is new evidence to look at, I will look at the evidence in any case.”
The city manager selected an investigator to conduct an external review of the case, but the mayor of Aurora announced last week that the city terminated its contract with the appointed investigator, who was an attorney and a former police officer.
Polis acknowledged Thursday that breaking with the decision of a district attorney and investigate and potentially prosecute a case is a rare move.
“This, however, is the truly exceptional case where widely reported facts are not addressed in any current investigation,” Polis wrote in his executive order. “These omissions merit a supplemental evaluation of the case by an independent prosecutor and thus warrant this Executive Order.”
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