Aurora police officer Nathan Woodyard was found not guilty by a Colorado jury Monday on all charges related to the death of Elijah McClain, an unarmed 23-year-old Black man who died after he was wrestled to the ground by police and injected with ketamine by paramedics in 2019.
Woodyard had pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in connection with McClain’s death. The officer remains suspended from the department without pay, pending the outcome of the trial.
The charges stem from the arrest of McClain on August 24, 2019, when officers responded to a call about a “suspicious person” wearing a ski mask, according to the indictment. The officers confronted McClain, a massage therapist, musician, and animal lover, who was walking home from a convenience store carrying a plastic bag with iced tea.
In an interaction captured on body camera footage, police wrestled McClain to the ground and placed him in a carotid hold, and paramedics later injected him with the powerful sedative ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was pronounced dead three days later.
Sheneen McClain, Elijah McClain’s mother, told CNN affiliate KUSA Monday she no longer has faith in the justice system after Woodyard’s acquittal.
“It lets us down, not just people of color, it lets down everybody,” she said. “They don’t do the right thing, they always do the bare minimum.”
She said she felt disappointed everyone involved in her son’s death hadn’t faced more accountability. Two paramedics who were charged after his death are set to go on trial in the coming weeks.
“It’s just unfortunate that the people that stopped my son, brutalized my son, tortured my son, get away with murder, and their passing on what they did to the medical professionals that still were supposed to do their job,” she said. “Nobody did. So it’s just unfortunate that they are placing the blame and passing the buck.”
She and local activist MiDian Holmes left the courthouse after the verdict holding hands and raising their fists in the air.
Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser expressed disappointment over Woodyard’s acquittal but said he and his team respect and accept the outcome.
Speaking outside the courthouse shortly after the verdict was read, Weiser said he is thinking of McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, “who has fought hard to keep her son’s memory alive and to live on as a blessing.”
“No mother should go through what she’s gone through,” he said. “We must all do what we can to stop the unlawful and unnecessary use of force that can result in people dying at the hands of law enforcement. As I’ve said before, only then will we have true justice and accountability.”
After Woodyard’s acquittal, his attorneys, Andrew Ho and Megan Downing, said they are “respectful of the process in what is a very difficult case.”
“We are respectful of the process in what is a very difficult case. We have never disregarded the tragic circumstances, but are relieved for what we believe is the just outcome for our client,” they said.
Fifteen-day trial comes to an end
Prosecutors initially declined to bring charges against the officers and paramedics involved in McClain’s death, but the case received renewed scrutiny following the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in the spring of 2020. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor to reexamine the case, and in 2021 a grand jury indicted Woodyard, two other officers and two paramedics in McClain’s death.
Woodyard’s trial began last month and featured testimony from Aurora law enforcement officers who responded to the scene as well as from doctors who analyzed how McClain died. The jury was deliberating for a second day Monday when they came to a unanimous verdict.
During the 15-day trial, the defense called law enforcement and medical experts, along with Woodyard himself, to testify. Prosecutors argued the officers used excessive force against McClain in the form of two carotid holds. The officers then failed to check his vital signs, even as he threw up in his ski mask and repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” according to the prosecution.
Dr. Roger Mitchell Jr., a forensic pathologist who reviewed McClain’s autopsy, testified the cause of death was “complications following acute ketamine administration during violent subdual and restraint by law enforcement, emergency response personnel.” He testified there was a “direct causal link” between the officers’ actions and McClain’s death.
However, the defense argued the carotid holds were appropriate because McClain was physically resisting. Defense attorneys also argued there was no evidence the officers’ actions led to his death, and instead placed the blame on the paramedics’ decision to inject McClain with a dose of ketamine too large for his size. The use of ketamine, a powerful sedative, by emergency responders to tranquilize people against their will has raised controversy and triggered investigations in multiple states.
Dr. David Beuther, a pulmonary critical care physician, testified on cross-examination he believed McClain would not have died if the paramedics had recognized his issues and intervened.
Two other officers, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt, were tried jointly beginning in September. Roedema was found guilty of the lesser-included charges of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. He will be sentenced in January. Rosenblatt was acquitted of all charges.
Two paramedics who treated McClain, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, are set to go on trial in the coming weeks. They have pleaded not guilty. In 2021, the city of Aurora settled a civil rights lawsuit with the McClain family for $15 million, and the Aurora police and fire departments agreed to a consent decree to address a pattern of racial bias found by a state investigation.
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