ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. — In the second trial in the case of Elijah McClain's 2019 death, jurors on Monday acquitted Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard on charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
The jury reached a decision around 2:40 p.m. on Monday after an 11-day trial. They began deliberations around 1 p.m. on Friday. The verdict was read on Monday at 3:05 p.m.
The hearing was brief. Afterward, Chief Art Acevedo of the Aurora Police Department (APD) issued the following statement:
“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."
The City of Aurora said they are not sure if Woodyard will be reinstated as a police officer with APD.
Sheneen McClain, McClain's mother, also provided Denver7 with a statement after the verdict was read. She said:
Despite what it looks like, they did not get away with murder. The truth they tried to hide about how they murdered my son has been shown to the world. Everyone who was present during the night of my son’s murder will have an eternity of punishment and shame to face. No one will ever forget what they did. Karma is real, so don’t be sorry for me. This is the system of biased hate that we all work for and pay into. Additionally, I ask the world to stop making or promoting any items that use my son’s photo, image, likeness, or dying words. To spread awareness about the injustices in this world’s legal system that concern my son’s murder, please just post the news articles. Thank you for understanding. Our Humanity Matters ALWAYS.
In addition, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser released a statement about the verdict. He said:
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.
Woodyard's trial began on Oct. 17, just a day after a split verdict was reached in the combined trials against former Aurora Police Officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt. Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. Rosenblatt was acquitted of all charges.
A third and final trial in the McClain case is scheduled to begin on Nov. 27 for two paramedics, Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper. They have both been charged with reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, plus sentence enhancers. The paramedics are accused of injecting a significant amount of ketamine into McClain, causing him to overdose.
All five defendants in this case pleaded not guilty to the charges against them after a 32-count indictment was returned by a grand jury in September 2021. Forensic Pathology Consultant Stephen J. Cina said in his autopsy report from 2019 that McClain's cause and manner of death was undetermined.
In an amended autopsy from July 2021, which was not released until September 2022 and was released after Cina had looked over "extensive body camera footage, witness statements, and additional records,” he listed his cause of death was “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint,” but left his manner of death undetermined. Cina wrote that he couldn’t rule out whether the stress of being held down by the officers may have contributed to McClain’s death.
What did these charges stem from?
On the evening of Aug. 24, 2019, McClain, who was 23 years old, visited a local convenience shop near Billings Street and E. Colfax Avenue to purchase iced teas. While listening to music and dancing, the massage therapist started to make his way back home. A teenager called 911 after seeing what he reported was a "sketchy" man wearing a mask, and three Aurora police officers responded. They were later identified as Officer Randy Roedema, Officer Jason Rosenblatt and Officer Nathan Woodyard.
Woodyard, who was the first officer to make contact with McClain, was accused of putting him in a carotid hold that rendered him unconscious. Prosecutors argued he struggled to breathe after the hold and he was drowning in his own vomit, which was caught in his mask.
Aurora Fire Rescue was called to the scene and their paramedics injected McClain with the powerful sedative ketamine. Medical experts testified that he was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for somebody of his size and, as a result, he overdosed. Prosecutors said in the wake of the carotid hold, this played a key role in his death, while defense attorneys argued that the cause of death was only the ketamine, and he would have survived the police encounter without the injection.
Elijah McClain case: A timeline of how we got to this point
The ketamine led to cardiac arrest. McClain was declared brain dead days later and died Aug. 30, 2019.
His death became a rallying cry during protests that eventually led to police reform in Colorado less than a year after his death.
It banned the fleeing felon rule, banned carotid and choke holds, got rid of qualified immunity for officers who acted unlawfully, required law enforcement agencies to put new use-of-force rules in effect by Sept. 1, 2020, required all officers that interact with the public to wear body or dash cameras by 2023, required body camera video to be released within 45 days in excessive force cases, included changes to reporting for grand juries and district attorneys, a duty for officers to intervene if another is using excessive force, and more.
In August 2020, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office launched a review of the Aurora Police Department’s practices, which was completed about a year later and listed 99 recommendations issued.
The City of Aurora settled a civil lawsuit with McClain’s family in November 2021 for $15 million.
Woodyard testifies in his own trial: "I thought he was safe"
Just before the court's lunch break on Nov. 1, Judge Mark D. Warner, who presided over the previous trial and Woodyard's trial, asked Woodyard if he wanted the opportunity to testify. He said he did.
This was the ninth day of the trial.
Woodyard, who grew up in Aurora, said he attended the city's Smoky Hill High School and went to college at Metro State University, where he studied criminal justice. Out of high school, he was in the Marine Corp before going to college full time. He joined the police academy in October 2016 and graduated in May 2017. He said his father was a police officer and he remembered going on ride-alongs with him when he was a teenager. He said he looked up to his dad and the other officers.
Woodyard said he was the first officer to contact McClain at the scene. He testified that he believed he was in contact with McClain for about five minutes total that night. During the struggle, he remembered hearing Roedema say, "He just grabbed your gun, dude" just after McClain had said, "I intend to take my power back."
"I was expecting to get shot and I thought I’d never see my wife again," Woodyard said in court. "... Before that moment, it was police work. Something I would expect, though I hadn’t experienced it before. I felt that I was reasonably safe. Once I heard Roedema say, ‘He tried to grab your gun,’ I thought I was in true danger.... I thought he was trying to get a gun to harm somebody. Me. The other officers.”
Elijah McClain | 360 In-Depth Coverage
Elijah McClain case: Defendant Nathan Woodyard testifies in his own trial
He said he didn’t know if the allegation of a gun grab was true.
“At that point, I didn't know if he had successfully retrieved the gun, or if the other officers were fighting over a gun in the holster," Woodyard testified. "My first thought was, ‘This needs to end immediately.’"
He chose to apply the carotid hold on McClain, something he had not done in the field before. He said it was not a choice he made lightly, but he believed McClain might have had a gun.
“In that moment leading up to me applying the carotid, there was a lot that I didn't know," he testified. "I didn't know if a gun was out of the holster, if at any second it would start going off.”
Woodyard told prosecutors on a cross-examination that if he could go back in time, he would not have applied the hold. He said he also wouldn't have grabbed McClain within a few seconds of pulling up near him.
McClain regained consciousness after the hold and told his police his name and that he wasn't armed, Woodyard testified. He recalled that McClain said he couldn't breathe, and Woodyard took the 23-year-old's mask off and threw it into the grass, thinking that might have been the cause of his breathing problems.
McClain was then put into the carotid hold recovery position and Woodyard said he then didn’t remember hearing him say anything else in regards to struggling to breathe. He said he never checked McClain's pulse since he was speaking in full sentences.
Woodyard said he then left McClain with Roedema and Rosenblatt to speak with his supervisor, who arrived on the scene by that point. He remembered feeling "overwhelmed" and "scared" he testified. When he walked away from McClain to speak with a sergeant, he said "I thought he was safe" and trusted the other officers would take care of the person in their custody.
"Did they?" his defense attorney asked.
"No. I know that now," Woodyard replied.
When he rejoined the scene, Aurora Fire Rescue and paramedics had arrived. He testified that he did not tell the sergeants or paramedics about McClain's repeated complaints of being unable to breathe, and did not know the paramedics could give McClain an overdose of ketamine. Woodyard said, as a police officer, he could not have prevented paramedics from administering the sedative.
He told prosecutors that he wished he had told the other officers and sergeants that McClain had said he couldn't breathe, and agreed that police should have told paramedics about any medical problems that had happened prior to their arrival.
What is next?: Combined trial for two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics
The third trial in the McClain case is scheduled to begin on Nov. 27 for two paramedics, Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper.
They have both been charged with reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, and sentence enhancers. These charges are rare against paramedics.
The paramedics are accused of injectinga significant amount of ketamine into McClain, which officials said led to an overdose and his cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. McClain was taken off life support three days later and pronounced dead on Aug. 30, 2019.
Records showed Aurora paramedics have administered ketamine 25 times since they began using the sedative drug in 2018 until mid-2020. Denver7 Investigates found in nearly half of those cases — 11 out of 25 times — medics failed to estimate a patient’s weight, leaving that portion of the report completely blank. And almost every time a patient’s weight was missing, paramedics would give them 500 milligrams of ketamine — an entire vial and the maximum dose of the drug.
Aurora Fire Rescue’s EMS Patient Care Report showed medics gave him 500 milligrams of the drug, which was a dose recommended for a 200-pound person. McClain weighed 143 pounds.
During Woodyard's trial, Dr. Nadia Iovettz Tereschenko was brought as an expert witness in paramedic roles, protocols, trainings and pre-hospital care. In her own experience and based on that material, she said paramedics are supposed to arrive at a scene and conduct a primary and secondary assessment of the patient. Those assessments include a physical examination of the patient and using a heart monitor and pulse oximeter to gather information about the patient's status. She said she did not observe a full assessment in the body-worn camera video from the officers on scene of McClain's arrest.
In Dr. Tereschneko's evaluation of the body-worn camera video, she said the paramedic care fell "significantly below" a reasonable standard of care.
The doctor testified the fluid seen in body-worn camera footage coming from McClain's nose and mouth was concerning because he didn't seem to be reacting to it in any way, meaning he wasn't coughing, gargling or vomiting the fluid as the body does reflexively to clear someone's airway.
When asked if ketamine was appropriate at the time of McClain's arrest, Dr. Tereschenko replied that "ketamine was not appropriate for McClain at the time."
PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF THE TRIAL OF OFFICER WOODYARD
Day 1 — Tuesday, Oct. 17
Day 2 - Wednesday, Oct. 18
Day 3 - Thursday, Oct. 19
Day 4 - Friday, Oct. 20
(No court on Monday, Oct. 23)
Day 5 - Tuesday, Oct. 24
Day 6 - Wednesday, Oct. 25
(No court on Thursday, Oct. 26)
Day 7 - Friday, Oct. 27
(No court on Monday, Oct. 30)
Day 8 - Tuesday, Oct. 31
Day 9 - Wednesday, Nov. 1
Day 10 - Thursday, Nov. 2
Day 11 - Friday, Nov. 3