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 Oct. 19 proceedings.
Friday, October 20
The Colorado Judicial Branch's live stream of Adams Division L had technical issues for the first 20 minutes the trial was scheduled to be in session.
By the time the problems had been resolved, prosecution had called up APD Officer Darron Dunson, who was called to McClain's arrest to be of assistance to the three officers who initially made contact with the 23-year-old.
Dunson was also called to testify during the trial of Roedema and Rosenblatt that ended just over a week ago. In prior testimony, Dunson said he was at the scene about four minutes total before he was told he was no longer needed there and left.
In the prosecution's direct examination of Dunson, Ann Joyce, an assistant attorney general in the department of law with the Colorado General Attorney's Office, questioned Dunson about where Woodyard was during Dunson's time on the scene.
When asked if the three initial officers on scene addressed McClain when he said he couldn't breathe, Dunson said, "I don't believe so." Joyce drilled down even more specifically on whether Woodyard was there and checked on McClain when he told officers he was struggling to breathe, Dunson replied, "No ma'am."
Dunson testified that he responded to the hospital after he had left the initial scene, and observed McClain unresponsive with blood on his face.
During defense attorney Andrew E. Ho's cross examination, he made a point to ask Dunson whether his memory was hazy after four years and testifying three different times in the case. Dunson agreed.
Ho also revisited the prosecution's line of questioning regarding Woodyard stepping away from McClain on scene.
He asked Dunson if he heard any of the sergeants on scene scold Woodyard for doing so or telling him to get back over there, that he's not allowed to walk away. Dunson said "no." And Ho prompted Dunson to testify, as a fellow officer, that he did not notice any symptoms of McClain not being able to breathe.
In Joyce's redirect, she focused on Dunson's testimony that an individual officer can disregard a sergeant's direct orders if they articulate why the order would threaten the officer or someone else's safety.
Joyce asked, "An individual officer can determine what’s safe at the scene?"
Dunson responded that was correct.
The prosecution also confirmed that Dunson did say McClain was not fully in the recovery position when Dunson was on scene.
He was on his "side slash stomach," Dunson said.
The court took a mid-morning break for about 20 minutes and resumed the trial around 11:05 a.m.
The People introduced Madison Freeman as a witness. Freeman worked at the front desk at Massage Envy where McClain was a massage therapist. She also testified in the trial against Roedema and Rosenblatt.
Colorado Attorney General senior prosecutor Jason Slothouber introduced two photos into evidence Freeman took of McClain at work.
She told the jury the two worked together four days a week, sometimes working 10-hour shifts together. Freeman testified to McClain's daily fitness regiment, as McClain's health has come into question over the course of this case as a reason for him dying in police custody. Freeman told the court McClain was a vegan, and wore running shoes to work, going for runs during his lunch breaks.
She also spoke to McClain complaining about being cold at work because the person who called the police on him said he looked suspicious with a ski mask on his face.
The prosecution also brought in Officer Alicia Ward as a witness. Ward was also called on to testify during the trial of Roedema and Rosenblatt.
Ward was told by the leading sergeant at the scene to talk to the person who made the 911 call about McClain. Then, she came back to assist officers Roedema and Rosenblatt in McClain's arrest, if needed.
Ward and prosecution went back and forth over whether or not officers put McClain in the recovery position after he vomited. In prior testimony, she had said he "toppled" over. But Friday, she clarified he was not in the "perfect" or "typical" recovery position.
Ward and Slothouber also debated whether or not McClain was at risk for "assaulting" the officers.
The prosecution rested before court went on their lunch break and was expected to be back by about 1:30 p.m.
After the lunch break, Ward was cross-examined by defense attorney Downing and asked if she could recall McClain vomiting or saying he couldn't breathe, which she did not. She was also asked if she ever heard Officer Woodyard give McClain any type of commands, which she said she couldn't recall.
None of the officers checked McClain's pulse, she said, and Woodyard was not "in the immediate vicinity" at the time.
She also testified that she did not have a conversation with paramedics about McClain as she didn't think it was necessary, and further testified she did not hear any paramedics ask her if she had heard anything about what happened to MClain.
Officer Ward also said she didn't know what paramedics were injecting McClain with at the time.
In the redirect, the prosecution pressed Ward on questions about the chain of command when police are responding to calls and Ward said that sometimes, officers have to rely on other officers who might have been at the scene of a call earlier to relay important information to other responding officers.
Woodyward was the first to respond to the scene the night of McClain's arrest.
The witness was excused and the 12th witness in the trial was then called to the bench.
PARAMEDICS CONTRACTED TO WORK WITH AURORA POLICE ARE CALLED TO TESTIFY
The next witness to be called to the bench was Alissa Gonzalez, a paramedic for Falck Rocky Mountain, a company that works in partnership with the Aurora Police Department by providing ambulances that show up to calls when needed.
Gonzalez, who is a paramedic now, worked as an EMT Basic, which are only allowed to provide first aid or life support care to sick and injured patients but aren't allowed to do much else.
During the night of McClain's arrest, Gonzalez testified that her role at the time was that of a paramedic support, so she was in charge of things like getting a gurney ready, making sure the straps were out of the way - things like that.
When she and her supervisor got to the scene of McClain's arrest, she said she could not tell whether he was in medical distress at the time, but could only say he wasn't moving but was grunting. She wasn't concerned about him at the time because the grunting "could have meant a lot of different things."
As the prosecution walked through body-worn camera video, Gonzalez was asked if McClain being face down was a "good idea."
She responded that it isn't a good idea "because people could aspirate."
Gonzalez reiterated she wasn't concerned about him being in respiratory distress until after he was checked twice for his pulse, at which point paramedics performed CPR.
She was asked if it was important for paramedics to know basic information about a person's condition before they're administered ketamine, which she said "yes" to. Some of that information included the reason for the sedative, the estimated weight of the person who the sedative was administered to, the person's medication allergies, etc.
In cross examination, defense attorney Megan Magdalena Downing questioned Gonzalez whether she personally attempted to communicate with anyone in the ground about McClain's condition, which the witness did not.
Gonzalez was then excused from the bench.
The fourth witness of the day to be called by prosecutors was then called to the bench — Brian Walker, a firefighter paramedic with Aurora Fire Rescue who used to work for Falck Rocky Mountain at the time of McClain's arrest.
Walker walked Slothouber through his recollection of the events that night when he and Gonzalez were radioed in to go and assist Aurora police officers that night.
The witness recalled that he was told over the radio that he would need to provide ketamine to paramedics at the scene they were responding to, and once at the scene, Walker told the prosecution he had a "quick conversation" with Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic Jeremy Cooper about the ketamine, but didn't know who the patient was at the time.
In cross examination by defense attorney Downing, Walker was asked if he performed an assessment of McClain prior to Aurora paramedics administering the ketamine, which he said he didn't do because he felt he didn't need to after speaking with Cooper, saying it's normal for paramedics to rely on information from other people instead of performing assessments on their won to save time and to respond as quickly as possible should a patient need to be transported immediately to the ER.
Walker was then excused from the bench.
AURORA OFFICER IS QUESTIONED ABOUT THE PROTOCOL FOR TEACHING THE CAROTID HOLD
The next witness to be called by the prosecution was Grant Heyneman, an Aurora police officer who's worked for the department for roughly 21 years. Currently, he is a full-time instructor at the Aurora Police Academy and has been in the role since 2015.
Heyneman was questioned by Assistant Attorney General Shaheen Sheikh about the training that is done for students at the academy, specifically training pertaining to the carotid hold - the technique used on McClain by Woodyard which rendered McClain unconscious before the unarmed Black man was administered a heavy dose of ketamine.
The witness testified he was leading the carotid hold training in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017, when Woodyard was a police academy recruit.
Heyneman walked prosecutors through a "carotid practical test outsheet," which was a list of steps that recruits had to follow to understand how to properly perform the carotid control hold on people who may be resisting arrest.
The witness told prosecutors the practical test is a pass-fail test, meaning that if a recruit fails one of the steps or the technique that is to be performed, they would fail the test and would need to retake it again. Failing the test would prevent them from becoming Aurora police officers.
In cross examination, the defense pressed Heyneman on the practical test being in a very controlled environment and not in a real-world setting, where officers weren't expected "to simply have a checklist" they need to complete to the T and instead, "to use and exercise their judgment for when a maneuver is appropriate."
Defense attorney Andrew E. Ho then questioned Heyneman that if the suspect is coherent, "you don't need to check the pulse (of the suspect)?"
"That's correct," Heyneman said, adding that officers wouldn't check the pulse of someone who was coherent enough to be able to communicate with officers.
In the redirect, Sheikh asked Heyneman whether the practical carotid test is ever done with multiple recruits and one suspect, as was the case with McClain.
"No," Heyneman said. "It's always one-on-one."
The witness was excused and court was then dismissed for the day until Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.