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Elijah McClain's cause of death has changed to ketamine administered by responders

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A coroner in Colorado has changed the cause of death for Elijah McClain to ketamine. McClain was a 23-year-old Black man who died after a violent confrontation with police back in 2019. Three officers and two paramedics face charges in his death. This latest development now raises questions about those charges going forward. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry joins us now to explain. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So I know that you've been following this story from the very beginning. Can you just real briefly remind us what happened to McClain back in 2019?

SHERRY: Sure. McClain was a massage therapist who lived in Aurora. In August 2019, he was walking home from getting some iced tea, and police stopped him. They said they got a call that he was acting suspicious even though he wasn't suspected of any crime. The arrest grew aggressive pretty quickly. He was put into chokeholds. The paramedics were called. They gave him a large dose of ketamine, which is a sedative. He slipped into a coma, and he died a few days later.

CHANG: OK. And fast-forward to the latest developments in this case. Explain why this determination that McClain died from a lethal dose of ketamine is so important here.

SHERRY: Yeah. You know, this really goes to the core of the case itself. We have five responders now facing felony charges in his death. The initial cause and manner of death was undetermined, which makes it hard to pin any responsibility on anyone. You know, they mentioned he had ketamine in his system, but they didn't point to it as the reason he died. And I'll note that changing an autopsy is not unprecedented, but it's extremely rare nationally.

CHANG: Right. OK. But the thing is there have been a lot of questions about this case from the very beginning, right? So can you just explain why was that?

SHERRY: Yeah. You know, well, you know, the local DA didn't even take the case because - at the beginning because he didn't have enough evidence to charge anyone, he said. A year later, the state attorney general picked it up following statewide protests. He impaneled a secret grand jury, and charges were filed against the police officers and paramedics last year. Because of the state investigation, the coroner says she got new evidence and decided to make the change to ketamine as the cause of death to McClain's official autopsy report. You know, I should also note the medical examiner made a point to say in this new report that police officers were not explicitly responsible for McClain's death. We don't know what's all in the secret grand jury investigation. And in fact, just to get this new autopsy, which is a public record in Colorado, our radio station, Colorado Public Radio, had to sue the coroner to get it.

CHANG: And what does this autopsy change now mean specifically for the criminal case?

SHERRY: Well, it's interesting because because they charged - I'm sorry. It's interesting because they changed the cause of death to ketamine. But the manner of death is still undetermined. That means they don't have a homicide ruling. It's a complicated case, but very simply, we still don't have anyone officially saying someone killed Elijah McClain. And that's important. You know, now in the indictment against the police officers and the paramedics, the attorney general calls it homicide, but we don't know what evidence he'll present when they go to court in November.

CHANG: That is Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radio. Thank you, Allison.

SHERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Sherry