Denver7 is following the second of three trials in the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died a few days after he was violently arrested by Aurora police on Aug. 24, 2019.
Aurora Police Department (APD) Officer Nathan Woodyard is charged with reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of McClain. Previously, a jury found APD Officer Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. Former APD Officer Jason Rosenblatt, who was fired by the department less than a year after McClain's death, was acquitted of all charges.
Woodyard, who is currently suspended from the APD, is accused of putting McClain in a carotid hold that rendered him unconscious before paramedics arrived to administer ketamine, a powerful sedative. The 23-year-old massage therapist encountered police on Aug. 24, 2019 after a person called 911 to report a “sketchy” man walking in Aurora.
Officers with the Aurora Police Department (APD) responded and put McClain, who was unarmed and had not committed a crime, into a neck hold. Paramedics administered the ketamine, which officials said led to cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.
He was declared brain dead days later and died Aug. 30, 2019. A pathologist found he was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for somebody of his size and, as a result, he overdosed. The City of Aurora settled a civil lawsuit with McClain’s family in November 2021 for $15 million.
Woodyard, along with two paramedics who have yet to face jury trials, have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in January 2023 in the wake of a grand jury indictment.
Two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics — Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper — have trials beginning Nov. 17 and 27, respectively, for charges of 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.
Scroll down to read updates from the Nov. 3 proceedings.
Friday, Nov. 3
After 10 full days of hearing from witnesses, the 11th day of Nathan Woodyard's criminal trial opened on Friday morning with jury instruction, followed by closing arguments. The prosecution had previously rested their case on Oct. 27 and the defense rested on Thursday afternoon.
Each side had a maximum of 70 minutes to make their closing argument, Judge Mark D. Warner said.
The jury began their deliberations at 1:10 p.m. Friday following a lunch break.
PROSECUTION: 'AT EVERY SINGLE TURN, HE CHOSE TO ESCALATE'
Prosecutor Jason Slothouber began at the very beginning of this case, when McClain was walking home from a convenience store on the evening of Aug. 24, 2019. He was dancing and listening to music, which he stopped after police approached him. In the BWC videos from those moments and the ones after, he is heard saying statements like, "I'm different," "I’m an introvert," "Please respect the boundaries" and “I’m just going home." In a sometimes "heartbreaking gasp," McClain told police exactly what he was doing, Slothouber said.
“The defendant had all the information he needed to do the right thing," he said.
Slothouber said there was no need for the escalation that followed. In fact, he argued, Aurora police officers are trained to de-escalate in all practical scenarios. He pointed to Woodyard's own statements during a cross-examination, when "he said it would have been practical to just have a conversation," Slothouber said. Had Woodyard stopped McClain, asked some questions and had a conversation, he would have realized he was speaking with a "kid on his way home" who was dancing to music, he said.
Instead, Woodyard ignored his own training, Slothouber explained.
“At every single turn, he chose to escalate," he said, noting that Woodyard admitted on the stand that he took advantage of the first possible moment to put his hands on McClain.
There was no explanation to McClain of what was happening at that moment or any afterward, Slothouber said. Woodyard not only had completed a course on KOGA, or arrest control techniques, but was an instructor for that type of training. He was not a newbie, Slothouber said, and knew that if he put his hands on McClain, the 23-year-old would likely tense up.
Slothouber explained to the jury that the manslaughter charge against Woodyard is not a murder charge, meaning Woodyard never intended to kill McClain, but rather that he recklessly caused his death or contributed to his death. Slothouber listed four ways the defendant caused the death:
- Woodyard did not follow his APD training, which instructs officers to de-escalate. Instead, he followed up on his threat of "changing the situation," Slothouber said.
- He chose to use the carotid hold. Injuries from that led to McClain's death. It started a hypoxic cycle, Slothouber said. This, plus the vomit in his mask, led to acidosis. Even a few minutes of that can lead to a rapid deterioration of health.
- McClain's multiple complaints of "I can't breathe" were a medical emergency but police ignored it, which led to his death, Slothouber said. Woodyard did not tell paramedics or the sergeants at the scene of these complaints.
- Woodyard encouraged McClain being pinned down in the prone position right before and after getting the ketamine injection from paramedics, Slothouber said.
Slothouber said the defense will claim that the police officers called for Aurora Fire Rescue after using the carotid hold — which they attempted once unsuccessfully and then a second time successfully — on McClain, which they did. But the defense will say that was all officers could do in that moment, he said.
"How about telling them what the problem is — that he threw up in his mask and said he couldn’t breathe?" he asked the jury. "How can you get appropriate medical care to somebody when you’re not telling paramedics what the real problem is?”
Furthermore, Woodyard did not tell Aurora Sgt. Dale Leonard or Sgt. Rachel Nunez (Woodyard's direct supervisor) about McClain's statements of being unable to breathe, which is a sign of respiratory failure and is considered a medical emergency, Slothouber said. The defendant didn't have to fix that issue, but he was required to tell the paramedics, he said.
The carotid hold contributed to McClain's death because, as Dr. Roger Mitchell had stated on Oct. 27, it put McClain in a fragile and precarious position by the time paramedics had arrived, Slothouber said, adding that the responding paramedics "absolutely" gave McClain the wrong amount of ketamine. It became more dangerous and deadly, he said.
Slothouber brought up Woodyard's own testimony, in which he said he wouldn't have applied the hold if he could go back in time, and instead would have just tried to have a conversation with McClain.
He then noted what happened after the carotid hold. Officers are trained on the follow-up procedures, but Woodyard decided to complete only some of them — something that if done in a training exercise, would have resulted in a failing grade, Slothouber said. Those follow-ups included checking for coherency, breathing and a pulse. Had Woodyard looked for McClain's pulse, there's the possibility he would have realized something was wrong, Slothouber explained. Perhaps the pulse would have been extra faint, slow, fast or erratic. Plus, Woodyard testified that he could hear McClain talking, but not what he was saying — namely, if it was coherent — after the hold. After he removed the mask, Woodyard said he didn't hear McClain say "I can't breathe," but did not check to see if he was OK, Slothouber said.
Any of that kind of information would have been helpful, the prosecutor said.
When Woodyard left McClain's side to speak with Sgt. Nunez, he knew those follow-up steps had not been completed, Slothouber said.
Woodyard was also at the scene after McClain had been injected with the ketamine and saw he was in the prone — not recovery — position, Slothouber said. He was trained to know the dangers that could arise from that.
Toward the end of his closing arguments, Slothouber said he wanted the jury to understand that the emotional, regretful and empathetic version of Woodyard who was on the stand on Wednesday was not the same version he presented to McClain on the evening of Aug. 24, 2019.
“That night — that was not who he was. He didn’t listen to Elijah McClain," he said.
He ended by saying that as McClain was loaded onto the gurney, Woodyard looked down at his face and as seen in the BWC footage, his eyebrows went up and he appeared to gasp, Slothouber said.
“He sees exactly what is happening. And he is doing nothing to stop it," he concluded.
DEFENSE: 'HE IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER PEOPLES' INACTIONS'
Defense attorney Andrew E. Ho began his closing arguments by reminding the courtroom that McClain mattered.
"The world was a much better place with him in it," he said. "We need to end in-custody deaths. There’s been too much violence. The world will be a better place when that happens.”
This case has a lot of anger in it, but that emotion isn't one-sided, he explained. Woodyard entrusted McClain to the care and custody of his fellow Aurora police officers and the paramedics, and he died.
Woodyard did not kill McClain and is not responsible for what others did or did not do, Ho said. He added that this trial had been about other people and their actions, or in actions, and the government simply wanted Woodyard to take the blame.
“Ketamine is what killed Elijah McClain," Ho said. "That is what this entire trial should have been about. This fact has been repeated over and over and over. Every time an expert took that stand, they all testified that it was the ketamine.”
The paramedics were the one that administered the 500 mg of ketamine — an overdose — to McClain, not Woodyard. And they made that decision within 90 seconds, despite no assessment of the 23-year-old, and against their training, Ho said.
Before the ketamine, McClain did not suffer from cardiac arrest and his heart and breathing hadn't stopped, he continued. All of that happened after the injection.
Ho called up multiple experts' testimonies, where they stated that but for the ketamine, McClain would be alive. They had said that even if McClain had been injected with the sedative while perfectly healthy, he still would have likely died. Without the ketamine, the experts said McClain should have survived the carotid hold.
The attorney said the prosecution couldn't single out one act that Woodyard did to cause death — it has to be lumped with others' actions.
“He is not responsible for other people’s inactions," he said. "He is not responsible for the paramedics’ decisions that day... They (prosecutors) ask you to convict Nathan on the actions of others.”
Ho said that the experts testified that police are not medically trained beyond first aid and applying a tourniquet. They do not practice how to spot acidosis or hypoxia, but are trained to call for assistance. Ho said if hypoxia, acidosis and aspiration were easy for police to identify, the prosecution wouldn't have needed several experts to testify about the conditions during the trial.
Woodyard stated in his own testimony that he should have spoken with McClain more before putting his hands on him. But Ho said the jury can't look at that with 20/20 hindsight. Officers are trained to be cautious, he said, and when Woodyard heard about McClain's alleged gun grab, he thought it to be true. He did not know at the time that McClain was not armed.
“Now, he knows who Elijah McClain was," he said. "Now, he knows he didn't have bad intentions. He did not know that then. He only knew that somewhere was scared enough to call 911 for help."
Ho moved to discuss McClain's repeated complaints of "I can't breathe." He said based on the BWC footage when Woodyard is with McClain, he is heard saying that statement multiple times. Woodyard then removed McClain's mask and did not hear the complaint any other times, so he believed he had addressed the issue, Ho said. McClain did indeed make the complaint once more, but Woodyard was not there at the time, he added.
Toward his conclusion, Ho argued that prosecutors simply wanted a conviction in this case.
“We can only hope that the truth matters to you," he said. "We can only hope that transparency matters to you. So Nathan took the stand. It was important for you to hear from him... Nathan is here because he trusted people to do their jobs and he didn’t and Elijah McClain died. We’re now trusting you to do your job... You’re the only ones who can set him free.”
PROSECUTION RESPONDS TO DEFENSE'S CLOSING ARGUMENT
In a 20-minute response, the prosecution was able to address the defense attorney's closing arguments.
Prosecutor Slothouber said the defense is using an excuse to say that when the paramedics are there, Woodyard is released of his responsibilities. He said if Woodyard created a dangerous and deadly situation, knows how deadly it is, and is trained how to stop it, that should be done.
“That is why McClain is dead," Slothouber said. "The defendant caused it.”
He said prior to the injection, it's obvious — even to somebody not in the medical field — that McClain is in bad shape. And yet Woodyard knew ketamine was coming and would be injected into McClain despite his state, Slothouber said.
At no point, he argued, did the defense say that Woodyard was not reckless or did not violate his training. Instead, the defense is focused on pushing the blame to paramedics and asking the question, "Isn't what they did worse?" Slothouber said.
Slothouber asked the jury to approach their deliberations by starting with a discussion about the big issues of the case. He listed those out as the risks, problems and dangers Woodyard created, what happened to McClain from a medical standpoint and why McClain was in such bad shape before the ketamine injection.
Both sides then rested their case.
Judge Warner told the jury to take their lunch break and return for deliberations to start at 1:10 p.m. Friday.
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 (this story)