On April 20, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder and two other counts related to the May 2020 killing of George Floyd — an incident captured in a horrific video that sparked weeks of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, including in Denver.
Following the verdict, numerous prominent Coloradans released statements, including Governor Jared Polis, Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen. One of the most striking takes came from attorney Mari Newman, speaking on behalf of Elijah McClain, an innocent, unarmed 23-year-old Black man who died in August 2019 following what she's characterized as a prolonged and torturous interaction with members of the Aurora Police Department. In her remarks, Newman essentially accused Aurora of shirking responsibility for a crime on par with Chauvin's by protecting the officers whose actions resulted in McClain's death.
"We are gratified to see that Derek Chauvin has been held criminally accountable for murdering George Floyd," Newman said, pointing out that "any other result would have been a stunning miscarriage of justice for a murder that the entire world witnessed on video." And then she lowered the boom.
"Unfortunately, Colorado prosecutors have not shown the same commitment to holding officers accountable for the murder of civilians," she maintained. "So far, we have not seen any charges against those who murdered Elijah McClain, an innocent young Black man who was walking home minding his own business. And, unlike the City of Minneapolis — which acknowledged its own failures by firing the officers who killed George Floyd and providing some remedy to Mr. Floyd’s family — Aurora, Colorado, continues to deny accountability for killing Elijah McClain, refuses to fire all of the officers who killed Elijah McClain and failed to intervene to stop the outrageous use of force against him, and has provided no remedy to Elijah’s family."
In a response provided to Westword, Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly declined to directly address Newman's charges, choosing instead to portray the McClain tragedy as something of a learning opportunity.
The Chauvin verdict "is only one step toward healing across our country and in our communities. We respect the judicial process and the nation’s collective calls for reform in public safety," Twombly said. "Mr. Floyd’s tragic death in 2020 further underscored why Aurora began reexamining its public safety practices in 2019 following the death of Elijah McClain. We recognize there is much more work to do. We continue to listen to the community’s feedback as we review the results of other external, independent recommendations we have already received or will receive in the weeks and months ahead."
Beyond the City of Aurora, the lawsuit Newman filed on behalf of McClain's estate last August names fifteen individual defendants: Aurora Police officers Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema, Jason Rosenblatt, Matthew Green, Alicia Ward, Kyle Dittrich, Erica Marrero, James Root, Jordan Mullins-Orcutt and Darren Dunson; sergeants Dale Leonard and Rachel Nunez; Lieutenant Peter Cichuniec; paramedic Jeremy Cooper and Dr. Eric Hill. But none of them have become nearly as well known as Chauvin — partly because there is no video as shocking as the Floyd footage, for reasons that are almost as controversial.
As Newman told us back in 2019, the body-worn cameras of the three officers who grappled with McClain supposedly all came loose during their actions, resulting in images of the ground rather than what they were doing to him. The audio came through loud and clear, though, and among the words from McClain was a phrase also uttered before Floyd died under Chauvin's knee: "I can't breathe!" But the absence of visuals resulted in a much more muted public response.
Here's a compendium of McClain-related footage — more than three hours' worth — released by the Aurora Police Department.
Almost nine months after McClain died, his case finally attracted national attention during last summer's protests, yet Aurora's subsequent responses have been mixed. For example, a week before the October 2020 unveiling of "A New Way," characterized as a reform effort for the APD, the city argued in court documents that officers had done nothing wrong in the way they handled McClain.
A scathing Aurora City Council-commissioned study released in February determined quite the opposite; the results of state and federal investigations are still pending.
In the meantime, LaWayne Mosley, McClain's father, expressed gratitude over the Chauvin findings. "Nothing will bring George Floyd back, just like nothing will bring Elijah back," he said. "But I am happy for the family of George Floyd that the officers who killed him have been held accountable."
Click to read the Estate of Elijah McClain v. The City of Aurora, et al.
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