Jurors on Monday found the Aurora police officer who put Elijah McClain in a neck hold not guilty on all counts in the 23-year-old’s death more than four years ago after being violently arrested and injected with a powerful sedative.
Nathan Woodyard, 34, was acquitted of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, the conclusion of the second of three criminal trials in a case of police violence that drew widespread local and national attention following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Jurors in the first trial acquitted former officer Jason Rosenblatt last month on charges stemming from McClain’s 2019 death, but found officer Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.
McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, was in the courtroom Monday and wiped tears from her eyes after the Woodyard verdict was read. She left the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton with her fist raised in protest.
Megan Downing, Woodyard’s defense attorney, said, “We believe it was the right verdict, not an easy one.”
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, whose office is prosecuting the Aurora police officers and paramedics involved in McClain’s death, said in a statement that he knew securing convictions would be difficult.
“We remain undeterred in our pursuit of accountability and justice for Elijah McClain and his family and friends,” Weiser said. “I’m thinking of Sheneen McClain, who has fought hard to keep her son’s memory alive. No mother should go through what she has. We must do all we can to stop the unlawful and unnecessary use of force that can result in people dying at the hands of law enforcement.”
McClain was walking home from a gas station — wearing a black ski mask as he often did, and dancing to music — on Aug. 24, 2019, when someone called 911 to report a suspicious person.
The responding officers detained McClain, violently forced him to the ground and handcuffed him before paramedics injected McClain with the sedative ketamine. McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, where he was later declared brain dead.
He died Aug. 30, 2019.
As police responded that August night, Woodyard was the first officer to make contact with McClain. He grabbed the 23-year-old within eight seconds of getting out of his patrol car, without introducing himself or explaining why he wanted to talk to him.
Prosecutors argued that Woodyard needlessly escalated the situation at every turn as he and two other officers, Rosenblatt and Roedema, tackled McClain to the ground. Woodyard used a carotid hold on McClain after Roedema claimed McClain reached for an officer’s gun.
The neck hold caused McClain to briefly lose consciousness, and prosecutors argued it started a series of events that ultimately led to McClain’s death, including a subsequent overdose of ketamine given to McClain by Aurora paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper.
Defense attorneys argued that the neck hold did not contribute to McClain’s death, instead blaming McClain’s death on the overdose of ketamine and the actions of the other two officers, who continued to restrain McClain as his condition worsened after Woodyard had walked away.
Unlike the first two officers who were prosecuted, Woodyard took the stand during his trial. He testified that he put McClain in the neck hold because he feared for his life after he heard McClain say, “I intend to take my power back” and another officer say, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.”
Prosecutors refuted that McClain ever tried to grab an officer’s gun and it can’t be seen in body camera footage.
Though the cases against Woodyard and Rosenblatt are over, Roedema is scheduled to return to Adams County District Court to be sentenced on Jan. 5. He faces between one and three years in prison on the homicide conviction and up to 24 months in jail on the assault conviction.
Cichuniec and Cooper, the two paramedics, are scheduled to stand trial in late November.
McClain’s death initially garnered minimal local attention, but by the summer of 2020, thousands of Coloradans took to the streets to protest police brutality, prompting changes to state law to limit the use of ketamine during police encounters and triggering a consent decree over the Aurora Police Department.
Aurora city officials in 2021 agreed to pay $15 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents. At the time, it was the largest settlement in a police misconduct case in state history.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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