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Colorado's Governor Appoints A Special Prosecutor To Look Into Elijah McClain's Death


Last year a 23-year-old Black man named Elijah McClain died after being violently arrested in Colorado. Now his case is getting renewed scrutiny. It comes as people across the country protest police use of force against African Americans. Yesterday Colorado's governor appointed a special prosecutor. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry is here to talk with us about this story. Hi, Allison.


SHAPIRO: For those who aren't familiar with what happened to Elijah McClain, tell us about who he was and how his life ended.

SHERRY: McClain was a Black massage therapist who lived in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. McClain reportedly had a blood circulation disorder and was often cold, so he wore warm clothing. And last summer he was walking home from a convenience store after getting some iced tea, and Aurora police received a call about a man acting suspiciously. He was wearing a ski mask in public well before the current COVID crisis.

Cops stopped him. He was unarmed but resisted arrest and fought with them. And in video footage, you can hear him saying he wanted his space. He didn't have a weapon. He wanted to be left alone. Police say he tried to take one of their guns, and in the scuffle, the body cams fell off. So you can't see anything, but you can kind of hear them go back and forth. The police put him in two chokeholds. McClain fainted. He vomited a couple of times, and then a paramedic injected him with ketamine in an ambulance en route to the hospital. He eventually went into cardiac arrest and died several days after being declared brain-dead. And I want to stress that he wasn't a suspect in any crime.

SHAPIRO: And these awful events took place almost a year ago. So has his death been investigated before?

SHERRY: Yeah. Last year the county prosecutor investigated the incident with reports given to him by the Aurora Police Department, and the DA decided there weren't grounds enough to charge the three officers with anything beyond a reasonable doubt. And I want to take a minute here to talk about McClain's autopsy, which is a pretty big deal because McClain's cause of death is undetermined. And that means, you know, it wasn't classified as a homicide, which the DA says makes it very hard for him to do anything with that. Without a homicide finding, it's hard to press criminal charges against a cop.

But last year the DA didn't ask for a second opinion. He didn't seek out a different coroner to see if he could get some more information. And all during last fall McClain's family members and some of the local politicians had been pushing for an independent investigation, and that didn't go anywhere - until this week, that is.

SHAPIRO: And this week the governor got involved. Tell us more about what happened there.

SHERRY: Yeah. Colorado's Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday assigned a special prosecutor to look into what happened to McClain. He chose the state Attorney General Phil Weiser. And the governor said after talking to McClain's family, he felt the injustice of what happened needed to be escalated to a statewide concern.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about why it's getting all of this new attention now 10 months after Elijah McClain's death.

SHERRY: Well, there was a social media takeover of the story. A change.org petition circulated and garnered more than 2 million signatures calling for action around McClain's death. Some professional athletes, politicians all chimed in on this call for action. And, you know, people were picking up on similarities between McClain and George Floyd - the fact they were both Black men, unarmed, placed in chokeholds.


SHERRY: And the sheer volume of emails clamoring for something different to happen didn't go unnoticed by elected officials in Aurora, the DA's office and...


SHERRY: ...Of course the governor.

SHAPIRO: Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radio, thank you for your reporting.

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

Allison Sherry (CPR)