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Elijah McClain case: Trial for third Aurora officer — Nathan Woodyard — begins Tuesday with opening statements

Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard is charged with reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of McClain.
Posted: 12:52 PM, Oct 17, 2023
Updated: 2023-10-17 20:09:00-04
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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.

Elijah McClain case: Trial for 3rd Aurora officer, Nathan Woodyard, begins

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. 17 proceedings.

Tuesday, October 17

Opening statements began in this case at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, starting with the prosecution.

Ann Joyce, an assistant attorney general in the department of law with the Colorado General Attorney's Office, said the three officers, who she often referred to as "the team," did not listen to McClain when he told them "I can't breathe" and they did not pay attention as he drowned in his own vomit, which had caught in the mask he was wearing at the time police approached him.

She said in the 18 minutes after police first contacted McClain, Woodyard's choice of using the carotid hold later caused McClain to have trouble breathing and to vomit. She said Woodyard did not follow his training as McClain begged for help.

That, paired with paramedics' lack of intervention or analysis of McClain's health, led him to die, Joyce said.

“This trial is about the defendant and his teammates doing nothing to help Elijah McClain. This trial is about their continued callousness and indifference to Mr. McClain's suffering," she said.

She briefly outlined the events from Aug. 24, 2019, telling the jury that at no point did Woodyard announce who he was or why he was trying to stop McClain. After he put his hands on McClain, he instructed him to stop tensing up and to relax "or I'm going to have to change the situation," as heard on body-worn camera (BWC) footage.

The situation did indeed change, Joyce explained, after an alleged gun grab. However, she said there is no clear evidence of this, as the BWC video does not show it. This statement set up a series of events, including both Rosenblatt and Woodyard attempting the carotid hold on McClain. It wasn't clear how well Rosenblatt was able to perform this, since it was considered not successful. Woodyard then took over and was successful.

Joyce said this type of hold is only supposed to be used during a violent resistance and prosecutors did not believe the interaction with McClain showed him being aggressive. Right after it is applied, an officer is supposed to put the person on their side in a recovery position, check vital signs, apply first aid and check the person's coherency after they wake up, which is typically after 20 to 30 seconds. Joyce said the officers did not do many of these things.

She said after McClain woke up from Woodyard applying the carotid hold, he vomited into his mask and said that he could not breathe. His mask caught the vomit, which he inhaled, and it went down the wrong tube. This kickstarted a "vicious cycle," she said, and a medical emergency. She stressed that just because McClain said he could not breathe did not mean that he could breathe adequately, even if he could get the words out.

As they waited for paramedics to show up, officers continued to do pain compliance on McClain, who was handcuffed and on the ground, Joyce said. He was trying to cough, which takes a physical action, she said. You have to "sort of bear down" and have energy to push out your mouth, but because of his position, he was having trouble doing that, she said.

When the paramedics got to the scene, the officers did not relay any information about McClain's health, she said.

Despite telling police who he was multiple times, when McClain arrived at the hospital, nobody knew his name "because the officers were not listening," Joyce said.

She told the jury that they will hear from experts who will say the carotid hold led to aspiration, which led to acid build-up in McClain's body. He did not need ketamine at that point and was not a threat to anybody, she said, yet officers did not tell paramedics what was going on.

Woodyard was charged with reckless manslaughter and Joyce said evidence will show many reckless acts. This concluded the prosecution's opening statements.

On the defense side, attorney Megan Magdalena Downing, who represents Woodyard, stated simply that Woodyard did not kill McClain, but he is woven into the tragedy of the case.

She said McClain's death is incomprehensible and by all accounts, McClain was a sweet, young guy who was walking home. But after a sequence of events that Woodyard had no control over, McClain never made it home, she said.

She acknowledged that the evidence will make the jury angry, but emotions are not evidence.

"Let me be clear — someone is guilty," Downing said. "They’re not here. It’s not Nathan."

There is only one undisputed cause of death, she said, and it's the lethal dose of ketamine. That was something Woodyard could not control, as it was a medical decision made by medical personnel.

“This case is about if one person caused another to die and he simply did not," she said. "The only killer in the case is ketamine.”

Woodyard was the primary officer to respond that evening — Roedema and Rosenblatt were cover officers — but that doesn't mean every action was Woodyard's responsibility.

Now, four years later, with the benefit of hindsight and unlimited time to look at the BWC footage, the jury can see what Woodyard experienced in real time and in just seconds, Downing said.

When Woodyard responded to the call, he did not know McClain was not armed, if he would run, that he was listening to music, or how he'd react when police stopped him. He pulled his patrol car ahead of McClain, turned on his lights, and approached McClain from the front so he would see him, Downing said.

After the alleged gun grab, all four people were on the ground, she said. Woodyard decided to use non-lethal force — the carotid hold — to de-escalate the situation. The hold is an approved technique APD trained him on. After Woodyard released McClain, he was heard on BWC footage saying, "I can't breathe" and talking with officers.

Woodyard interacted with McClain for a total of about five minutes, she said. At the time he stepped away to speak with a commanding officer, McClain was alert, conscious and talking with other officers, Downing said.

Woodyard was not near McClain for his subsequent deterioration, Downing said. It would not be appropriate for an officer who was not trained in medical care to intervene with ambulance staff at the scene and he could not have stopped the ketamine injection, she said.

She concluded by saying as difficult as it is, this case is not about the sequence of events, but rather what caused a person to die. She asked the jury to find Woodyard not guilty.

The courtroom then took a recess for lunch.

First five witnesses are called to tesify

Once court was back in session, prosecutors called up the first witness, Ron Ryan with the Colorado Attorney General's Office. Prosecutor Jason Slothouber confirmed that Ryan was responsible for lining up the timing of the BWC footage, since the timestamps were slightly off. To do this, he watched the videos many times over.

Ryan said he used Woodyard's BWC as the baseline because his footage was the longest time-wise and covered much of the incident.

Ryan also described how the Colorado Attorney General's Office kept items as evidence and how they were packaged in evidence bags. This included McClain's clothing — some of which was torn away by medical personnel to provide aid — and his headphones.

During a cross-examination, he explained that McClain's mask was double-bagged because the original bag had been opened so the mask could be photographed. The seal was weakened because of this and so the attorney general's office used a second package around the first one.

In a redirect, prosecutor Slothouber asked if it appeared the evidence bag containing the mask had been tampered with before it arrived at the attorney general's office. Ryan said no.

He was then excused.

The second witness was Raminder Aulakh, who owns the Shell station that McClain visited on Aug. 24, 2019 to purchase iced tea. She said the property has 16 surveillance cameras both inside and outside the building and the footage has timestamps. It does not include sound. She said police reached out to her after the incident to request the footage.

In a cross-examination by defense attorney Andrew E. Ho, Aulakh said she couldn't recall if she made any calls to police for assistance in August of that year. She stressed that it's important for any business to have surveillance footage and the main security threat the store faced was shoplifters.

The third witness was Deborah Furler, who works as a dispatcher for the City of Aurora. Prosecutor Shaheen Sheikh, assistant attorney general, asked Furler to describe her role, the training involved and the system that the dispatch center uses. In August 2019, Furler was a call taker, she said, and took the 911 call from the teen who had seen McClain.

In the cross-examination, Ho asked if Furler knew that McClain wasn't armed, since the caller had said he hadn't seen any weapons. Furler said at the time, she did not know. She said the caller did not report a crime, but she was still required to tell him not to approach the person he was reporting.

Ho said the citizen was concerned enough to call 911 and noted there is a non-emergency phone number in Aurora.

Furler said she provided as much information as she could to police based on the caller's information.

Prosecutor Shaheen Sheikh asked in a redirect if people call 911 for many reasons, including some that are non-emergent. Furler agreed with this. She was then excused.

The fourth witness was APD Crime Scene Investigator Supervisor Laverne Amir. She described the packaging APD uses for evidence and how APD can use a drying chamber for evidence that is wet.

On the evening of Aug. 24, 2019, she was working and while two members of her staff went to the scene, she went to the hospital, where McClain was. She said he was in the emergency room receiving emergency treatment.

Amir said McClain's clothing had to be cut from him so medics could provide aid and an Aurora officer collected the clothes and gave them to Amir.

She said McClain had been booked into the hospital as a John Doe and she did not know his name when he was there.

Amir was in charge of photographing McClain to capture identifying features, his condition and any possible injuries. When shown one of her own photos in court Tuesday, she identified a medical device strapped on McClain and a medical line going into his neck. She also said she saw a red, wet substance around his mouth, nose and down his neck and chest. It was also visible under the gurney, she said.

She did not photograph McClain's mask.

Defense attorney Downing asked in a cross-examination if Amir knew who had removed McClain's clothes, or if it was Woodyard. Amir said she did not know.

She recalled responding to the hospital shortly after midnight and never seeing Woodyard that evening.

The final witness who testified Tuesday afternoon was Amanda Kelsey, who works as a crime scene investigator with APD and whose supervisor is Amir. She was one of the two investigators who responded to the scene that evening. She said she has gone through more than 750 hours of classes related to her field.

While she was not working the evening police contacted McClain, she was on call. When Amir called her and said there had been a critical incident, she went to headquarters, where she picked up the usual items she'd take to a scene, and then headed to the area to meet with detectives.

She said she took photos and videos of various aspects and items at the scene.

At that point, Judge Mark D. Warner said the court would break for the evening and restart at 9 a.m. Wednesday.


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