Felony Charges Dismissed Against Protesters Fighting for Justice for Elijah

Eliza Lucero, Lillian House and Joel Northam (left to right) kept protesting after their arrests.
Eliza Lucero, Lillian House and Joel Northam (left to right) kept protesting after their arrests. Noah Kaplan
While there are still four outstanding investigations — on both the state and federal level — into the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in late August 2019 after a violent encounter with members of the Aurora Police Department, the only charges made in the case so far are slowly disappearing. And they were made not against law enforcement authorities, but protesters who demonstrated last summer, demanding justice for McClain.

On May 6, 17th Judicial District DA Brian Mason announced that he was dismissing all outstanding felony and misdemeanor charges filed in his district against Lillian House, Joel Northam, Eliza Lucero, Terrance Roberts and Trey Quinn. “I have an ethical obligation to only proceed on charges my office can prove and to dismiss charges that we cannot prove,” Mason says in a statement on his decision. “My job is to do the right thing.”

Mason was elected DA in November, replacing his term-limited boss, Dave Young, who had cleared all officers of any wrongdoing in connection with McClain's death the previous November. While absolving the APD, last September Young filed a total of twenty charges against five protesters, including a felony charge of first-degree kidnapping against Young, Lucero and Northam, who'd led a protest at APD District 1 headquarters on July 3, 2020, while there were officers inside.

But on March 25, Adams County Judge Leroy Kirby dismissed those kidnapping charges. “This choice makes it impossible for this to be a substantial step toward imprisonment," he ruled. "Imprisonment, the Court finds, is against someone’s will. The Court cannot find that based upon the evidence presented, these officers were confined against their will.”
Protesters blocked I-225 during last summer's demonstrations. - MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
Protesters blocked I-225 during last summer's demonstrations.
Michael Emery Hecker
That move came a month after the City of Aurora released a 159-page report of an independent investigation into McClain's death, and how officers had bungled the case from the start of their encounter with McClain, who was walking home from a convenience store when someone reported a suspicious-looking man to 911 but said he did not seem dangerous. “It is important to note that neither the officers nor the caller identified a crime that Mr. McClain had committed, was committing, or was about to commit,” notes the report, which also found fault with how the APD investigated its own actions.

Then on April 5, newly elected 18th Judicial District DA John Kellner — who took over for term-limited George Brauchler — dropped all felony and most misdemeanor charges against the protest leaders in connection with incidents in Arapahoe County, particularly the blocking of I-225 last summer.

“These changes were requested after careful review of the investigation and the available evidence,” reads a statement released by the DA’s office. “Prosecutors must reasonably believe that charges are supported by probable cause, admissible evidence will be sufficient to support conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the decision to charge is in the interest of justice.”

A dozen misdemeanor charges are still outstanding in that jurisdiction. Terrance Roberts, a longtime Denver activist, is facing a charge of obstructing a highway. House faces two counts of obstructing a highway, as well as charges of tampering and petty theft. Northam also faces two counts of obstructing a highway, as well as charges of tampering, petty theft and harassment.

Meanwhile, at the request of Governor Jared Polis, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is also looking into the case; a grand jury investigation is currently considering the evidence, and Weiser is conducting a department-wide investigation of the Aurora Police Department, now under the command of Chief Vanessa Wilson, who was elevated to that position last August.

Last year, the feds confirmed that they, too, are investigating the circumstances of Elijah McClain's death..
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun