Last Charges Dropped Against Elijah McClain Protest Leaders

Eliza Lucero, Lillian House and Joel Northam after their arrests last fall.
Eliza Lucero, Lillian House and Joel Northam after their arrests last fall. Evan Semón Photography
"When we fight, we can win," says Joel Northam.

But the outcome of that fight might not be determined quickly.

On August 30, 2019, 23-year-old Elijah McClain was finally taken off life support; he'd landed in an Aurora hospital as the result of a violent arrest by Aurora police officers. Then-17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young conducted an investigation into McClain's death; that November, he announced that the officers had done nothing wrong.

But as protests in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police broke out across the country, new attention was focused on the McClain case. And finally, on September 1, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a 32-count indictment against the three police officers and two paramedics who'd injected McClain with enough ketamine for a man almost twice his size.

In the meantime, though, five of the people who'd led last summer's protests demanding justice for Elijah McClain — Northam, Lillian House, Eliza Lucero, Terrance Roberts and Russell Ruch — were all arrested last September 17, charged with everything from allegedly inciting riots to committing theft, blocking highways and attempting to kidnap Aurora Police Department officers. Lucero, House and Northam, leaders of the Denver branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, faced prison sentences of up to 48 years; the three were held in jail for eight days.

As the cry for accountability in McClain's death increased, so did demands that the charges against the protesters be dropped. Leaders from across the country joined in the National Committee for Justice in Denver, warning that continued prosecution of the activists for leading peaceful demonstrations against those in power would strike a blow to First Amendment protections everywhere in the country.

"We made it clear from the beginning that we were not going to take a plea deal," Lucero says in a recording made on Breakthrough News earlier today. And as the defendants went through dozens of court dates, slowly the charges were dropped. On March 25, Adams County Judge Leroy Kirby dismissed the most severe charges, including attempted kidnapping of eighteen officers inside Aurora’s District 1 Precinct headquarters. On April 5, newly elected 18th Judicial District DA John Kellner dropped all felony and most misdemeanor charges against the protest leaders in connection with incidents in Arapahoe County. On May 5, new 17th District DA Brian Mason dropped all the remaining charges in his jurisdiction.

And on September 13, Kellner dropped the last of the charges against House and Roberts, the only ones still outstanding against any protesters. The motion to dismiss the charges against Northam had been granted on September 9.

Although this clears their cases, the activists plan to fight on. "They fabricated evidence against us. ... They let those killers off the hook and then turned around and prosecuted us," House says of the police and prosecutors.

Although the results of federal investigations into the case have yet to be announced, House and her colleagues are already pushing for more probes of the prosecutors, particularly Young, who were ready to let the police officers off the hook.

"These indictments are a major victory, but they're not convictions yet," she concludes. "This is just the beginning of the people here taking power."
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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