DENVER (KDVR) — A suspended Aurora police officer has been acquitted of charges in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died after he was pinned with a carotid hold by Aurora, Colorado, police officers and injected with a potent sedative by paramedics.
Nathan Woodyard was charged with and found not guilty of reckless manslaughter and the lesser included charge of criminally negligent homicide after being on trial for the 2019 death of Elijah McClain. The trial included two and a half weeks of testimony and a jury began deliberations just after 1 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 3. The verdict was returned on Monday, Nov. 6, around 3 p.m.
The trial focused on what had ultimately killed McClain, who was stopped walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019. He was reported to 911 as suspicious for wearing a black ski mask and listening to music. After the police stopped him, officers quickly became physical with McClain.
McClain went into cardiac arrest and never regained consciousness. He died six days after the police stop.
Woodyard was the first officer who attempted to stop McClain and placed him in a carotid hold only moments after the police stop was initiated. Another officer had attempted to place McClain in a carotid hold earlier but failed.
Woodyard is the second officer to be acquitted in McClain’s death.
Woodyard’s defense pointed to paramedics
Woodyard’s defense lawyers argued that the officer’s aggressive hold was not what ultimately killed McClain. Instead, they point to the paramedics, who injected McClain man with ketamine.
The Adams County Coroner’s Office, which performed McClain’s autopsy, said in its initial report that his manner of death was “undetermined.” Later, the Adams County chief coroner revised the report, but the manner of death remains undetermined.
“After review of all material available to us at this time, it is my opinion that this 23-year-old, African American male, Elijah McClain, died of complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint,” the coroner’s office explained.
Woodyard also testified in his own defense, saying he was remorseful for his actions and would do things differently if he could go back to the same scenario.
The suspended officer testified the situation escalated when one of the other officers on the scene claimed McClain grabbed for an officer’s gun. Woodyard said that’s when he decided to apply the carotid hold.
“Leading up to the carotid, there was a lot I didn’t know. I didn’t know if a gun was out of the holster. I didn’t know if at any second it’d start going off,” Woodyard testified. “I was expecting to get shot, and I thought I’d never see my wife again.”
He said that when he walked away from the scene, McClain was still awake and communicating with officers.
The carotid hold is now banned by the Aurora Police Department, but it was a hold officers were trained on in 2019.
Prosecution admits ketamine played a role
The prosecution stressed that Woodyard had placed McClain in the carotid hold only moments after confronting him in the police stop.
The team called Dr. David Beuther, a pulmonologist, who said the carotid hold set off a chain of events that made it harder for McClain to recover. He testified that McClain was put in a position that made it difficult for him to breathe, which caused him to choke on his vomit before the ketamine injection.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Roger Mitchell testified that injuries at the hands of law enforcement contributed to McClain’s death and said he was in obvious distress because body camera footage showed he was having trouble breathing and appeared to be choking.
Mitchell said the officer heard on the body camera saying McClain “can breathe” was inaccurate because McClain was struggling to breathe and was unable to respond when asked if he was alright.
“The lack of response to me as a medical professional suggests that he’s not alright,” Mitchell testified.
Further legal proceedings are scheduled
Woodyard is the third officer to go on trial. In a separate trial that ended in October, a jury found one officer, Randy Roedema, guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.
The other officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was acquitted of all charges.
Roedema remains suspended from the Aurora Police Department, but Rosenblatt was fired on July 3, 2020, for his involvement in a text photo scandal where officers reenacted McClain’s death scene. Two other officers were also fired, and a third officer quit.
Rosenblatt and Roedema were charged, along with three other first responders, in 2021 after protests over the death of George Floyd spurred Gov. Jared Polis to direct the state’s attorney general, Philip Weiser, to open a new investigation into McClain’s death.
Two Aurora Fire paramedics, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, are also charged in McClain’s death. Their trial is slated to begin in late November.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.