By Brad Brooks
LONGMONT, Colorado (Reuters) -A Colorado jury on Monday found police officer Nathan Woodyard not guilty of manslaughter in the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who died after police placed him in a chokehold during an arrest and medics injected him with a sedative.
Woodyard, 34, the last of three Aurora Police Department officers to stand trial in McClain's death, had been suspended without pay from the force since 2020.
Earlier this month, a jury rendered a split verdict for the two other officers charged in the case, finding officer Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault, and officer Jason Rosenblatt not guilty on any charges. Two paramedics face separate trials this month for their role in giving McClain ketamine, a powerful sedative at times used on highly agitated patients.
The death of McClain, 23, inspired sweeping police reforms in Colorado in 2020, including the banning of chokeholds. His case, however, initially received scant attention, with local prosecutors declining to file any charges.
That changed following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Floyd's death ignited global racial injustice protests. Colorado Governor Jared Polis in June 2020 tasked the state attorney general's office with investigating the case. A state grand jury indicted the officers and paramedics in 2021.
"Today's verdict is not the one we hoped for, but we respect the jury system and accept this outcome," Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a written statement.
Weiser, referring to the upcoming trial of the paramedics, added: "We remain undeterred in our pursuit of accountability and justice for Elijah McClain and his family and friends."
Aurora's interim police chief, Art Acevedo, said in a written statement that the department respected the jury's decision and that he could not make more detailed comments given the paramedics' pending trial.
It was not clear if Woodyard would be back on the force in Aurora. A spokesperson for the city government said it would "take a few days to sort through" the possible next steps on Woodyard's employment. He said officials would be guided by the city charter, which states that any officer charged with a felony be immediately suspended, but that "such suspension shall be terminated by restoration to the service or by discharge as soon as the decision of the court becomes final."
Woodyard was the first officer to confront McClain as he walked home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, in the Denver suburb of Aurora. A bystander had called 911 to report that McClain, dressed in a winter coat and ski mask on a warm night, was acting suspiciously.
As the encounter escalated, Woodyard placed McClain in a carotid chokehold, which prosecutors said contributed to his death. In all, McClain was put in chokeholds at least twice during the stop and held down by officers for 15 minutes until the arrival of medics. McClain, who vomited into the ski mask he was wearing, repeatedly told the officers that he could not breathe.
In his closing argument on Friday, prosecutor Jason Slothouber said Woodyard failed to follow his training in violently confronting McClain, and then failed to advise medics that McClain had complained he could not breathe and had choked on his own vomit.
"At every single turn, he chose to escalate," Slothouber said of Woodyard's use of force. "There was never an explanation to Mr. McClain of why this was happening to him."
Lawyers for Woodyard argued it was the ketamine injected by the paramedics that killed McClain. They cited a revised autopsy report by the county coroner's office that concluded McClain died from "complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint."
"Nathan Woodyard did not kill Elijah McClain, he's not responsible for what other people did," defense attorney Andrew Ho said in his closing argument. "Ketamine is what killed Elijah McClain."
The two sides disputed how events unfolded during the stop.
Woodyard's lawyers argued that McClain tried to grab one of the officer's guns during the struggle, and that triggered a more aggressive response from the police.
Prosecutors say McClain never tried to grab the weapon. While body camera footage from the officers does not show McClain reaching for the gun, one of the officers, Roedema, can be heard on tape shouting that McClain was grabbing for the weapon.
Woodyard, who testified in his own defense, told the jury that in hindsight he would have done things differently. But in the moment, he testified, he feared for his life upon hearing that McClain had gone for the gun.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, ColoradoEditing by Paul Thomasch, Rod Nickel and Matthew Lewis)