If you’ve been following the sad story of Elijah McClain, a Black man who went into cardiac arrest and died in police custody in a Denver suburb in 2019 (after telling the officers who were arresting them that he was unarmed, that he doesn’t even kill flies, and that he loved them) you might know that Colorado Public Radio and several other news organizations took the local coroner’s office to court in order to gain access to an updated autopsy report that specifies the role played by forceful restraint and the ketamine that was injected into McClain during the incident.
The police report originally released did not offer any conclusion for how he died, which meant that prosecutors would have had a much harder time proving any charges in court. The amended report, which still does not conclude whether McClain’s death was natural, accidental, or homicidal, specifies that the death occurred after he was injected with the drug and forcibly restrained.
This is noteworthy, because it raises questions about when those details were added to the report; did Denver prosecutors know, at the time they initially decided against pressing charges against the the first responders, that the corner’s report mentioned the drug-and-restraint combo?
I see this story as evidence that hard-working reporters are taking seriously their task to speak truth to power, to hold authorities accountable, and to speak up for the disadvantaged. The only reason we know about these additional details is because reporters sued for access to information the cops refused to divulge.
However, if you’re one of the tens of thousands of people liking this viral post by someone called Evan Sutton, you might instead be focusing on the this AP tweet’s reliance on passive verbs, which de-emphasize the conscious actions of first responders.
The AP article is simply reporting the contents of the updated police report, which still doesn’t conclude whether McClain’s death was natural, accidental, or homicide. An autopsy has a limited scope, offering scientific and procedural evidence about the cause and circumstances of a death. Prosecutors would look at the corner’s report to help them decide how to proceed, and if the autopsy omits crucial details, that’s newsworthy.
It’s also newsworthy when reporters have to go to court to get access to a newsworthy public record such as an autopsy connected to a high-profile case.
Because the US constitution guarantees due process, and because the 5 people currently facing charges in McClain’s death haven’t yet had their day in court, Sutton’s “active voice” rewrites presents a claim, not a decided legal fact.
Journalists can report the fact that Jones died, and they can report that Smith is accused of killing Jones. Journalists are trained not to report “Smith killed Jones” until after the courts have settled the matter. Until then, they can report that “Smith allegedly killed Jones,” which acknowledges that in the US justice system, all suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
It’s a fact that McClain was injected with the sedative, and it’s a fact that McClain was forcibly restrained. A young man who needed help is tragically dead, which is why the story is newsworthy; however, nobody has been convicted of manslaughter or reckless homicide yet, so from a journalistic perspective, “Three police officers and two paramedics killed Elijah McClain” is an opinion, not a claim that has been tested and ruled factual in court.
One expects that the lawyers for the cops will blame the drug, and the lawyers for the EMTs will blame the restraint, and it will be up to the jury to sort it all out.
The new information — the recent development that makes it newsworthy to write a fresh story about this 2019 death — is the contents of the updated coroner’s report, which is still vague about how to classify McClain’s death.
This is very much an ongoing case, and it’s not for reporters to decide the guilt of defendants who have not yet even entered a plea — whether they write about it in passive voice or active voice.
Some people responding to this viral tweet are doing so in the context of criticism that journalists side with the police, that journalists are racists, and that journalists are intentionally distorting the truth.
The AP article in question notes that the Associated Press was one of the news organizations that joined the lawsuit in order to gain access to this report. The updated report is still inconclusive, but people who are looking for a smoking gun that will make it more likely to convict the accused shouldn’t blame reporters for fairly reporting the contents of the autopsy report — which, though updated to mention the combination of drugs and restraint, still does not offer a conclusion as to whether this death was natural, accidental, or homicide.
This same article offers plenty of background details about the incident, including noting a $15 million settlement paid to the parents of the deceased, and an outside commission that found serious problems with the initial police probe. If you believe the AP is somehow spinning the story to make the cops and EMTs look innocent, note that the article provides all this context that reminds readers of the fallout the city of Aurora has already faced.
McClain’s death fueled renewed scrutiny about the use of the ketamine and led Colorado’s health department to issue a new rule limiting when emergency workers can use it.
Last year, the city of Aurora agreed to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents. The lawsuit alleged the force officers used against McClain and his struggle to survive it dramatically increased the amount of lactic acid in his system, leading to his death, possibly along with the large dose of ketamine he was given.
The outside investigation commissioned by the city faulted the police probe into McClain’s arrest for not pressing for answers about how officers treated him. It found there was no evidence justifying officers’ decision to stop McClain, who had been reported as suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask as he walked down the street waving his hands. He was not accused of breaking any law.