FILE PHOTO: People visit a mural ahead of the one year anniversary of Elijah McClain's death

Paramedic gets 5 years in prison for Elijah McClain’s death in rare case against medical responders

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado paramedic was sentenced Friday to five years in prison for the death of Elijah McClain in a rare prosecution of medical responders that has left officials rethinking how they treat people in police custody.

The convictions of Peter Cichuniec and a fellow paramedic sent shock waves through the ranks of paramedics across the U.S. and thrust their profession into the acrimonious fight over social justice sparked by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper were both convicted in December of criminally negligent homicide for administering the sedative ultimately blamed for killing McClain, a 23-year-old Black massage therapist, in 2019. Cichuniec was also convicted the more serious charge of second-degree assault for giving a drug without consent or a legitimate medical purpose.

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, raised her fist in the air as she left the courtroom following Friday’s sentencing, as she’s done after previous hearings. Cichuniec had faced up to 16 years in prison on the assault charge, and the five-year sentence was the minimum the judge could have given Cichuniec under sentencing guidelines.

READ MORE: Former Colorado police officer appeals conviction in Black man Elijah McClain’s death

Someone from Cichuniec’s family called out, “Love you Pete” as he looked back and waved at them before leaving court in handcuffs.

In testimony before the sentence was handed down by Judge Mark Warner, Sheneen McClain said she once dreamed of being a firefighter and considered them heroes “until the day they took my son’s life.”

“You are a local hero no more,” she said as Cichuniec sat with his attorneys at a nearby table. “Next time, think for yourself and do not follow the direction of a crowd of cowards.”

She added that the other paramedics could have intervened “simply by just saying, ‘Stop hurting my patient.’”

Cichuniec — who has been in custody since his conviction and was handcuffed and shackled for the hearing — asked the judge for mercy. He wiped away tears as family members and friends testified as character witnesses on his behalf, and later told the judge he had spent his 18-year career as a firefighter and paramedic putting his own life on the line and putting other lives before his own.

“I have never backed down from a call and I’ve had more things happen to me than you can imagine,” he said. “It sickened me when the prosecution said during their closing argument that I showed no remorse for Elijah. … There was absolutely no intent to cause any harm to Elijah McClain.”

Cichuniec’s wife said after the hearing she was “relatively relieved” by the outcome since it was the most lenient sentence her husband could have received.

“It’s almost better knowing,” Katy Cichuniec said.

Firefighters and officials from their union have criticized the state’s prosecution of Cichuniec and said it was discouraging firefighters from becoming paramedics, decreasing the number of qualified personnel in emergencies and thereby putting lives at risk.

“Convicting Pete for the death is not justice. It’s the very definition of a scapegoat,” said former Aurora Fire Lieutenant John Lauder, who recently retired after working with Cichuniec over two decades. “But for the grace of God, it could be us in jail. The result of this decision will have a negative impact on patient care throughout the nation. Will paramedics now be held be held responsible for outcomes beyond their control?”

McClain’s death received little attention initially but gained renewed interest as mass protests swept the nation in 2020, with his name becoming a rallying cry for critics of racial injustice in policing.

READ MORE: What to know about the cases against police and paramedics surrounding Elijah McClain’s death

McClain was stopped by police after a 911 caller reported he looked suspicious walking down the street waving his arms and wearing a face mask on Aug. 24, 2019, in the Denver suburb of Aurora. McClain, who had been listening to music with earbuds, seemed caught off guard when an officer put his hands on him within seconds of approaching him. That began a struggle including a neck hold and a restraint that lasted about 20 minutes before McClain was injected with 500 milligrams of ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was taken off life support three days later.

Experts testified that the sedative ultimately killed McClain, who was already weakened from struggling to breathe while being pinned down after inhaling vomit into his lungs during the struggle with police.

Prosecutors said the paramedics did not conduct basic medical checks of McClain, such as taking his pulse, before giving him the ketamine. The dose was too much for someone of his size — 140 pounds (64 kilograms), experts testified. Prosecutors say they also did not monitor McClain immediately after giving him the sedative but instead left him lying on the ground, making it harder to breathe.

The case highlighted gaps in medical procedures for sedations of people in police custody that experts said must be addressed so more deaths can be prevented.

The sole police officer convicted in McClain’s death, Randy Roedema, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide. He was sentenced to 14 months in jail in January. Two other officers who were indicted were acquitted following weekslong jury trials.

Cooper, who is scheduled to be sentenced in April, faces a sentence that could range from probation to three years in prison.