Criminal Justice

A Paramedic Got 5 Years in Prison for Elijah McClain's Death. That's Not Justice.

It can certainly be true that Peter Cichuniec made an egregious professional misjudgment. And it can also be true that punishing him criminally makes little sense.


It has been just over four and a half years since police in Aurora, Colorado, violently detained Elijah McClain, who had committed no crime, after a teenage 911 caller reported he "look[ed] sketchy" as he walked home from a convenience store in August 2019. The encounter, which originally flew under the radar, epitomized the sort of hyperactive, abusive policing that people of varying political persuasions could admit was excessive as the U.S. engaged in a national debate about the broader subject in 2020. And the cursory internal investigation—if you can call it that—into McClain's death embodied the government's not-so-subtle tendency to insulate itself from transparency and accountability at the expense of the people who pay their salaries.

But all these years later, accountability is finally coming. And the results are, to put it mildly, a bit weird, raising potentially uncomfortable questions about what justice should look like in similar cases of abuse.

Peter Cichuniec on Friday was sentenced to five years in prison. But Cichuniec was not the officer who first physically accosted McClain within 10 seconds of exiting a patrol car, despite that no crime had been reported and that McClain had no weapon. That was Nathan Woodyard. Nor was Cichuniec one of the two officers who joined Woodyard shortly thereafter, helping him forcibly subdue and arrest McClain, notwithstanding the fact that they had not met the constitutionally required standard to do so. Those were Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema.

Cichuniec, who didn't arrive until about 11 minutes later, was the lead paramedic, ultimately administering too large a dose of a sedative after miscalculating McClain's size and hearing from police that McClain was allegedly experiencing "excited delirium," a potentially dubious syndrome characterized by severe distress, agitation, and sudden death. While it remains unclear what exactly caused McClain to go into cardiac arrest, an amended autopsy attributes McClain's death to "complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint." For Cichuniec's error, which occurred in rapidly changing, chaotic circumstances, he will spend significantly more time in prison than any of the officers, without whom Cichuniec would never have been called in the first place.

Woodyard, who initiated the encounter and violated department policy by applying two carotid holds—where blood flow to the brain is cut off by applying pressure to both sides of the neck—was found not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. (He has since returned to work with $200,000 in back pay.) Rosenblatt was also acquitted. Roedema, the senior officer on the scene, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault and sentenced to 14 months in jail.

As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote previously, McClain died from a smorgasbord of constitutional violations, laid out exhaustively in a 157-page report released in 2021 by an independent panel appointed by the Aurora City Council.

Did Woodyard meet the Fourth Amendment bar to conduct an investigatory stop of McClain? No, the panel concluded, as it "did not appear to be supported by any officer's reasonable suspicion that Mr. McClain was engaged in criminal activity." Was law enforcement justified next in frisking McClain, which is legally permissible only if they reasonably suspect the person is armed? No, the panel concluded, as Woodyard himself admitted he felt safe approaching because McClain "didn't have any weapons." And did police meet the constitutional threshold to escalate the encounter to an arrest, which requires probable cause that a crime has been committed? No, the panel concluded, as "the only facts that had changed were Mr. McClain's attempt and stated intention to keep walking in the direction he had been going and his 'tensing up.'" (In 2021, the city of Aurora authorized a $15 million settlement with McClain's family. Good.)

When Woodyard first approached McClain, he had earbuds in and appeared to not hear Woodyard's commands. He was wearing a ski mask, sweat pants, a jacket, and a knit cap, which makes sense when considering he had anemia, a condition that causes coldness in the extremities. Those were the circumstances—along with the teenage 911 call—that ultimately led police to feel justified in forcibly accosting McClain, who was 5'7″ and 140 pounds, so much so that he vomited profusely into his ski mask.

Cichuniec was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault, with a sentencing enhancement for causing serious injury or death. His five-year sentence is the mandatory minimum prescribed by Colorado law. At trial, prosecutors argued he and Jeremy Cooper—the other paramedic on scene who was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and will be sentenced later—failed to do their due diligence in monitoring McClain after giving him the ketamine. The defense countered that the two men were unaware McClain had already been the subject of two carotid holds and that he had vomited multiple times since—important information when evaluating ketamine use, which can further restrict breathing.

It can certainly be true that Cichuniec made an egregious professional misjudgment. And it can also be true that punishing him criminally for it makes little sense, particularly in the context of a criminal justice reform conversation that has, often rightfully, emphasized that prison should be reserved for people who actively present a danger to society. That those two things may feel painful to reconcile does not actually make them irreconcilable.

So is Cichuniec actively a danger? While his error—which appeared to be an honest one, no matter how catastrophic—very well may have contributed to McClain's demise, it is difficult to make the argument that he still poses a threat to the public. There are, after all, different forms of accountability outside of prison walls. Fire him? Of course. Bring a civil suit? Ideally. Imprison him for the next five years? I fail to see who, exactly, that makes safer.

At the close of one of the criminal trials involving McClain's death, the jury heard a refrain often touted by criminal justice reformers. It came from an unlikely source. "Just because there's a tragedy does not mean there's criminality," said one of Roedema's lawyers during closing arguments. Readers can view the body camera footage and decide for themselves if that applies to the officers.

But, at least when it comes to Cichuniec, the distinction between tragedy and criminality is correct. Elijah McClain didn't deserve to die. That's a fact. And it doesn't change the reality that putting Cichuniec in prison only serves to undermine what this same movement has often fought against: overbroad, ham-fisted prosecution. For that to mean anything, society shouldn't be sending people to prison because the political moment seems to demand it—no matter how unsympathetic the defendant.