The Aurora Police Department waited until July 3, the Friday before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, to release photos of three officers making sport of a chokehold at the site where cops had attacked and brutalized 23-year-old Elijah McClain — an unarmed black man who was the subject of a 911 call for nothing more than dancing to music while wearing a ski mask — last August 24; he died days later. Jaron Jones, who was at the center of the selfie, resigned on July 2, following an internal affairs investigation into the photos, while the two other camera subjects, Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich, were fired on July 3 — as was Jason Rosenblatt, who texted "Haha" after being sent the shot.
Rosenblatt was one of the three officers who'd responded to that 911 call, along with Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema, who remain on the force — and none received any punishment for what was actually done to McClain.
That infuriates attorney Mari Newman, who represents the McClain family. Corresponding via email, Newman points out that "Aurora has yet to fire two of the three killers who illegally stopped, tackled and inflicted prolonged excessive force on Elijah, the officer who threatened to sic a dog on a dying man for not laying still enough, multiple officers who failed to intervene to stop the torture, and medics who illegally injected Elijah with a massive dose of Ketamine."
She adds: "As Westword has noted, the irony is visible from outer space."
The images mimicking the chokehold were shown to McClain's family shortly before they were displayed at a July 3 APD press conference. "Seeing those photos was a gut punch to Elijah’s parents," Newman continues. "They were stunned by the callousness and depravity of those officers — two of whom had stood watching as Elijah was murdered and did not intervene to save him — treating the murder of their son as some sort of joke to reenact in order to 'cheer up' the killers. They were sickened to learn that one of the killers responded 'Haha' to the mockery of their son’s death at his hands."
Newman believes that Aurora officials did the right thing regarding the photos. "Of course those officers needed to be fired," she says, "and Elijah’s parents take some solace in the fact that those officers are not laughing now. But Elijah’s parents are steadfast in their conviction that all of the involved officers and medics must be fired, criminally charged, and never work in law enforcement again, and that the City of Aurora, too, must be held accountable."
This prospect isn't beyond the realm of possibility, even though 17th District District Attorney Dave Young declined to press criminal charges in the case last November (a decision he continues to defend) and the APD found that no departmental rules and regulations had been violated following an internal investigation whose results were announced in February. In late June, Governor Jared Polis tasked Attorney General Phil Weiser with launching a probe into the matter, and federal authorities led by U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn are involved in an ongoing civil-rights investigation. Meanwhile, last night, July 6, the Aurora City Council discussed the logistics of appointing an independent panel to look further into McClain's death. That inquiry, which councilmembers are scheduled to debate further on July 16, is expected to concentrate on training, polices and practices while leaving possible criminality to Weiser. On the table, too, is a ban on carotid chokeholds.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
If the officers involved in the attack on McClain are fired as the result of a new investigation — whether by the feds, the states or the city — could they be reinstated later because they'd previously been cleared of wrongdoing?
This question arises in light of developments involving Michael DeHerrera, who was beaten by two Denver police officers, Randy Murr and Devin Sparks, in April 2009. Murr and Sparks were initially given a mere three-day suspension for roughing up DeHerrera — but in 2011, following a community uproar over the incident, which was captured on video, their punishment was increased to termination. The action spurred a lengthy court battle, with the officers claiming that because they'd accepted their suspensions, the firings fell under the category of double jeopardy — and this past March, the Colorado Supreme Court essentially sided with the pair when it refused to hear the City of Denver's appeal of a lower court ruling in the officers' favor. As a result, Murr and Sparks were deemed eligible for rehiring by the Denver Police Department and nine years' worth of back pay that would almost certainly exceed $500,000 for each.
Newman doesn't believe the officers terminated over the photo incident will be able to escape punishment — and she remains focused on holding the officers involved in the McClain assault responsible. "Astonishingly, Aurora did not fire these, or any other officers, for their roles in the murder of an innocent young black man," she reiterates. "Aurora fired officers Rosenblatt, Dittrich and Marrero for their repulsive conduct in making a joke of the racist and brutal killing. This was new and additional misconduct that was not previously reviewed, so those terminations cannot be overturned based on the previous erroneous findings exonerating these bad officers for their roles killing Elijah McClain. These officers needed to be fired."
And neither she nor McClain's loved ones want Aurora to stop there.