Aurora police officer Nathan Woodyard was found not guilty Monday of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was walking home at night when an encounter with first responders led to his death.
Woodyard is among three Aurora police officers and two paramedics charged in McClain's 2019 death. The trial against the two other officers resulted inlast month with one convicted of homicide and one acquitted. The paramedics' trial is scheduled to begin later this month. Woodyard's trial stretched across several weeks and the jury deliberated for what added up to about a day-and-a-half before reaching their verdict in the afternoon on Monday.
Prosecutors argued throughout the trial that Woodyard grabbed McClain within 8 seconds of getting out of his patrol car without introducing himself or explaining why he wanted to talk to him. An emergency call had come in about McClain, with someone reporting that he looked suspicious wearing a mask. McClain is seen on body camera video that was shown in the trial seemingly caught off guard and trying to keep walking when Woodyard approached.
They say Woodyard chose to escalate the situation and didn't listen to what McClain was saying and ignored the police department's policy on de-escalation.
Woodyard put McClain in a neck hold that rendered him temporarily unconscious after he said he believed McClain had reached for one of the officers' guns -- a claim prosecutors disputed.
McClain was later injected with a fatal overdose of ketamine by paramedics.
Woodyard's lawyers stressed through the trial that the officer walked away during part of the confrontation after initially being called away by his supervisor. They said he was not with McClain as his condition worsened and other officers continued to restrain him. Defense attorneys Woodyard entrusted McClain's care to his fellow officer and the paramedics who used the ketamine.
The coroner's office's autopsy report,, found McClain died of an overdose of ketamine that was given after he was forcibly restrained by police. While it found no evidence the police actions contributed to McClain's death, prosecutors presented their own medical expert who said there was a direct link. Dr. Roger Mitchell of Howard University, the former Washington, D.C. coroner, said the police restraint caused a series of cascading health problems, including difficulty breathing and a buildup of acid in McClain's body.
Prosecutors argued in the first trial that the police encouraged paramedics to give McClain ketamine by saying he had symptoms, like having increased strength, that indicate a controversial condition known as excited delirium. In Woodyard's case, they said that after he returned to the scene, he failed to pull McClain off his stomach, which made it harder for him to breathe, and did not object to keeping him pinned down as he was given ketamine. Prosecutors have suggested Woodyard was more worried about a possible investigation and getting in trouble than how McClain was doing.
Unlike the other officers, Woodyardthat he put McClain in the carotid control hold because he feared for his life after he heard McClain say, "I intend to take my power back" and another officer says, "he just grabbed your gun, dude."
The prosecution peppered him with questions, implying that he chose to escalate rather than de-escalate the encounter.
Prosecutors contended McClain never tried to grab an officer's weapon, and it can't be seen in the body camera footage, which is shaky and dark before all the cameras fall off during the ensuing struggle.
But under defense questioning, Woodyard revealed a different side of himself and his fearful thoughts from that night:
"I heard Mr. McClain say he was going to take his power back. I was expecting to get shot and I would never see my wife again."
The defense argued Woodyard had to react to what he heard in the moment.
He testified that he was overwhelmed and scared and began to cry while talking to his supervisor. He said she suggested he take a break. He said he went to his car and cried some more before returning to the scene.
Elijah's mother, Sheneen McClain, walked out of the Adams County Courthouse with her fist raised above her head after the verdict was read on Monday afternoon.
Woodyard's attorneys released this statement in reaction to the verdict, "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."
The Aurora Police Department tweeted this response after the verdict, "As previously stated, I know many have been waiting a long time for the involved party to have his day in court. As a nation, we must be committed to the rule of law. As such, we hold the American judicial process in high regard. We respect the verdict handed down by the jury and thank the members of the jury for their thoughtful deliberation and service. Due to the additional pending trial, the Aurora Police Department is precluded from further comment at this time."
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser released the following statement regarding the verdict in the trial of the third officer accused of causing the death of Elijah McClain: Since the Governor appointed our office as special prosecutors to investigate and hold accountable those whose actions led to the death of Elijah McClain, we have taken our responsibility seriously, guided by the facts and the law. We knew these were going to be difficult cases to prosecute. In the pursuit of justice, and to honor the grand jury's decision, we committed to take these cases to trial. Today's verdict is not the one we hoped for, but we respect the jury system and accept this outcome. I thank the jurors for serving and performing their civic duty.
I am proud of and grateful for the hard work of our dedicated trial team. They presented a strong case against the officer involved in the death of Elijah McClain. The trial of the paramedics starts later this month, and I know the team handling that case will do their best work.
We remain undeterred in our pursuit of accountability and justice for Elijah McClain and his family and friends. 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. As I've said before, only then will we truly have justice and public safety.
Jury questionnaires will be handed out on Nov. 17 for the two former paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec charged in McClain's death. Jury selection in the courtroom is expected on Nov. 27. That trial is expected to last several weeks.
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