There are some troubling developments regarding amended autopsy details about 23-year-old Elijah McClain, a Black man who died in police custody in Denver in 2019. According to CNN, the autopsy results reported by coroner Stephen Cina were updated to “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.”
The amended autopsy report was signed in July 2021 and released Friday after a Denver District Court judge approved the coroner’s emergency motion. For three years, the original report had been listed as “undetermined, ” not saying how McClain died or if the cause of death was natural, accidental, or a homicide.
When officers responded to a call citing a “suspicious person,” on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was put in a neck hold and injected with ketamine after he bought iced tea at a corner store. After McClain was forcibly restrained, he was administered ketamine by paramedics. Unfortunately, McClain suffered a heart attack on the way to the hospital, and three days later, he was declared brain dead.
“Simply put, this dosage of ketamine was too much for this individual, and it resulted in an overdose, even though the blood ketamine level was consistent with a ‘therapeutic’ concentration,” Cina wrote. “I believe that Mr. McClain would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine.”
Hospitals commonly use ketamine as a sedative because it’s known to knock people unconscious within minutes. However, if used in high doses, it can be deadly. In McClain’s case, he was handcuffed and injected with ketamine after police felt he was resisting arrest. Many advocates, including a lawyer for the McClain family, Mari Newman, think that the drug has been used as a weapon against people of color.
“I think ketamine has been weaponized particularly against people of color,” said Mari Newman, the lawyer for McClain’s family. “The right to bodily integrity is a fundamental one which has to be respected.”
“It is a new weapon,” said Kenneth Udoibok, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who specializes in police brutality cases. “It absolves the police officers of the consequences of deploying a taser.”
The coroner’s office received “body camera footage, witness statements, and additional records that were part of a grand jury investigation or available when the original autopsy was performed.” Despite the updated results, the manner in which McClain died is still listed as “undetermined, ” based on the coroner’s training and experience. Stephen Cina also wrote in the report, “I have seen no evidence that injuries inflicted by the police contributed to death.”
In November of 2021, McClain’s family won a $15 million civil rights lawsuit against the city of Aurora. A Colorado judge also found sufficient evidence to move forward cases against the five former Aurora police officers involved in McClain’s death.