Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard was found not guilty Monday of involuntary 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 The lifeguards caused his death.
Woodyard is among three Aurora police officers and two paramedics charged in McClain’s death in 2019. The trial against the other two officers resulted in last month with one convicted of murder and another acquitted. The paramedics’ trial is scheduled to begin later this month. Woodyard’s trial lasted several weeks, and the jury deliberated for about a day and a half before reaching its verdict Monday afternoon.
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. He had received an emergency call about McClain, and someone reported that he looked suspicious wearing a mask. McClain appears on body camera video shown at trial apparently taken by surprise and trying to continue walking when Woodyard approached.
They say Woodyard decided to escalate the situation and didn’t listen to what McClain was saying and ignored the police department’s policy on de-escalation.
Woodyard grabbed McClain by the neck, rendering him temporarily unconscious after saying he believed McClain had taken one of the officers’ guns, a claim prosecutors disputed.
Paramedics subsequently injected McClain with a fatal overdose of ketamine.
Woodyard’s attorneys emphasized during the trial that the officer walked away during part of the confrontation after initially being called out 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 paramedics who used ketamine.
The autopsy report from the coroner’s office, , discovered that McClain died from an overdose of ketamine administered to him after police forcibly restrained him. While he found no evidence that 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, a former Washington, D.C., coroner, said the police restraint led to a cascading series of health problems, including difficulty breathing and acid buildup in McClain’s body.
People v Woodyard: the jury has reached a verdict. It will be read in 25 minutes. #CoLaw
— CO Courts (@CoCourts) November 6, 2023
Prosecutors argued in the first trial that police encouraged paramedics to give McClain ketamine by saying he had symptoms, such as increased strength, that indicate a controversial condition known as excited delirium. In Woodyard’s case, they said that after returning to the scene, he failed to remove McClain from his stomach, making it more difficult for him to breathe, and did not object to keeping him restrained while they administered ketamine. Prosecutors have suggested that Woodyard was more concerned about a possible investigation and getting in trouble than about how he was doing with McClain.
Unlike the other officers, Woodyard who put McClain on carotid control because he feared for his life after hearing McClain say, “I intend to take my power back” and another officer says, “just grab your gun, buddy.”
Prosecutors maintained that McClain never attempted to grab an officer’s gun, and it cannot be seen on the body camera footage, which is shaky and dark before all the cameras go down during the ensuing struggle.
The defense argued that Woodyard had to react to what he heard at the time.
He stated 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 her car and cried some more before returning to the scene.
Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, left the Adams County Courthouse with her fist raised.
The Aurora Police Department tweeted this response after the verdict: “As stated above, I know many have been waiting a long time for the party involved to have their 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 returned by the jury and thank the jurors for their careful deliberation and service. Due to the pending additional trial, the Aurora Police Department cannot help but comments at this time.”
“As stated above, I know many have been waiting a long time for the party involved to have their day in court. As a nation, we must commit to the rule of law. As such, we hold the American judicial process in high regard. We respect the verdict issued by the… pic.twitter.com/5z8nmrWlOv
— Aurora Police Department (@AuroraPD) November 6, 2023
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser issued 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 interest of justice and to honor the grand jury’s decision, we committed to bringing these cases to trial. Today’s verdict is not what we expected, but we respect the jury system and accept this result. I thank the jurors for serving and fulfilling their civic duty.
I am proud and grateful for the hard work of our dedicated testing team. They presented a strong case against the officer involved in the death of Elijah McClain. The paramedics’ trial begins later this month and I know the team handling that case will do their best work.
We remain steadfast 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 his son’s memory alive. No mother should have to go through what she has. We must do everything we can to stop the illegal and unnecessary use of force that can lead to people dying at the hands of law enforcement. As I have said before, only then will we truly have justice and public safety.
Jury questionnaires will be handed out on Nov. 17 to the two former paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec charged in McClain’s death. Courtroom jury selection is expected to be Nov. 27. The trial is expected to last several weeks.