Colo. officer found not guilty in death of Elijah McClain
The jury could have convicted Nathan Woodyard on charges of either manslaughter or negligent homicide, but it found him not guilty of both
By Julia Cardi
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — An Adams County jury decided on Monday that Aurora police officer Nathan Woodyard is not guilty on all charges in connection with the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.
Jurors deliberated beginning early Friday afternoon, and the verdict was reached shortly before 2:45 p.m. on Monday.
Woodyard — who was the first officer to stop McClain, 23, the night of Aug. 24, 2019, as he walked home from a convenience store — faced charges of criminally negligent homicide, a lesser included charge to the manslaughter count, which means a jury could have chosen to convict him of one or the other, but not both.
He was found not guilty of both.
The Aurora Police Department posted a statement on the social media platform X, saying exactly the same thing following the verdicts of the first two officers to go to trial.
“As previously stated, I know many have been waiting a long time for the involved party to have his day in court,” Chief Art Acevedo said in the statement. “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.”
Woodyard and two other officers, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt, had responded to a 911 call by a teenager who reported McClain looked suspicious because the caller spotted him wearing a face mask and waving his arms. McClain often wore a mask to keep warm and was listening to music, prosecutors said.
Woodyard said he heard Roedema say McClain tried to grab Rosenblatt’s gun, so he used a neck hold on McClain that temporarily restricts oxygen to a person’s brain and can induce brief unconsciousness. About 18 minutes after the struggle began, a paramedic called to the scene injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine, a sedative. He stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest shortly after.
A doctor pronounced him brain dead three days later.
McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, cried after the verdict was read. Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber, the lead prosecutor, hugged her with a stoic expression. McClain left the courtroom with her fist raised to photographers in the hallway.
She declined comment to a group of reporters outside the courthouse.
“Respect my boundaries that I am speaking,” she said, echoing what her son told Woodyard when the officer first grabbed him.
“I’m disappointed, but it’s to be expected because of how the first trial went. This is their pattern, this is their practice and they are sticking to the way that they do things,” McClain later told 9News, The Denver Gazette’s news partner.
“I wanted to hit somebody,” she added. “I wanted to kick something. I wanted to take out my vengeance on the ones that murdered my son because there is no accountability within the justice system, and today proves it once again.”
Woodyard stayed sitting in the courtroom for several minutes after Judge Mark Warner excused him. He did not appear to look at Sheneen McClain.
“We are respectful of the process in what is a very difficult case,” Woodyard’s attorneys, Megan Downing and Andrew Ho of Recht Kornfeld said in a statement to The Denver Gazette. “We have never disregarded the tragic circumstances, but are relieved for what we believe is the just outcome for our client.”
Woodyard has been suspended without pay since the case was first brought against him more than two years ago. Aurora’s city charter says that suspension of a civil service employee charged with a felony comes to an end, with back pay for the period of the suspension if the employee returns to work, “as soon as the decision of the court becomes final.”
When asked whether that means Woodyard is eligible to return to service immediately, or whether the suspension remains until any potential appeals by the state finish, city spokesperson Ryan Luby wrote in an email: “We do not have precise answers yet on each next step, but the charter requirements are what must guide those steps. We expect it to take a few days to sort through.”
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said his office is disappointed with the verdict but that he respects the jury’s decision. He declined to answer questions, citing the pending trial of two paramedics facing charges for McClain’s death.
“We knew these were going to be difficult cases to prosecute,” Weiser said in a statement. “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.”
He added: “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.”
MiDian Holmes, a supporter of Sheneen McClain and the chief executive officer of The Epitome of Black Excellence & Partnership, said she felt frustration, sadness and exhaustion after Monday’s verdict. But she said Sheneen wants to keep fighting to turn her “pain into progress.”
While two of the people she believes are responsible for McClain’s death have been acquitted, Holmes said they will always be associated with what happened to him.
“The one thing they cannot walk away from is that their names will be tied to this story,” she said.
In closing arguments last week, Slothouber argued four key choices made by Woodyard caused McClain’s death: Immediately escalating the encounter; using the carotid hold that kicked off a series of McClain struggling to breathe and vomiting; not treating McClain’s cries that he could not breathe as a medical emergency; and, his complicity in allowing McClain to stay pinned on his stomach by other officers.
A forensic pathologist testified for prosecutors that he believes the carotid hold started a cycle of increased carbon dioxide buildup in McClain’s blood, as he struggled to breathe while pinned on the ground, causing him to vomit and then inhale it into his lungs, because he couldn’t clear his airway.
Later, Woodyard violated his training by not making sure Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics knew about McClain’s symptoms, including his struggles to breathe and vomiting in his mask, Slothouber argued.
Woodyard’s defense attorneys repeatedly directed blame to the paramedics for their decision to inject McClain with ketamine without examining him. They also argued that when he heard Roedema say McClain had tried to grab Rosenblatt’s gun, it doesn’t matter whether McClain actually did, because Woodyard believed it was true.
Woodyard’s defense attorneys have argued throughout the trial that the officer stepped away from the immediate struggle to speak with his supervising sergeant when she arrived at the scene, and, thus, wasn’t responsible for McClain’s violent subdual by other officers or the decision to inject ketamine.
When Woodyard testified in his own defense last week, he said hearing his fellow officer say McClain had grabbed a gun made him fear for his life. But he admitted he made mistakes when he escalated the situation and should have slowed down to talk to McClain when the officer first stopped him.
The jury in the trial of the first two officers acquitted Rosenblatt last month on charges of reckless manslaughter and second-degree assault. The jury convicted Roedema of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault, which were lesser included charges.
McClain’s death gained widespread attention in the summer of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. The former district attorney for Adams County declined to file any charges, but Colorado Gov. Jared Polis asked Weiser to give the case another look after nationwide protests over Floyd’s death.
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