BRIGHTON — Four days after a jury convicted one Aurora police officer of homicide in the death of Elijah McClain and acquitted another, a new officer sat in the same courtroom, before the same judge, in the same seat — but for a new jury trial.
The second trial in McClain’s death opened Tuesday in Adams County District Court. Suspended Aurora police Officer Nathan Woodyard, 34, is charged with reckless manslaughter and a lesser included count of criminally negligent homicide in the 2019 death.
Woodyard is the third Aurora police officer to stand trial. On Thursday, former Officer Jason Rosenblatt was acquitted on all counts and Officer Randy Roedema was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor assault after a separate three-week jury trial.
Attorneys for both sides in the Woodyard case offered opening statements Tuesday to a new, mostly female jury of 11 women and four men. The majority-white jury includes at least one Black person, unlike the jurors seated for Rosenblatt and Roedema’s joint trial.
McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, was walking home from a gas station on Aug. 24, 2019 — wearing a black runner’s mask as he often did — when a 17-year-old boy called 911 to report a suspicious person. The three officers detained McClain within seconds of approaching him and violently forced him to the ground.
Woodyard performed a carotid hold on McClain after Roedema claimed that McClain had reached for Rosenblatt’s gun — a claim prosecutors suggested was false during Roedema and Rosenblatt’s joint jury trial.
The carotid hold caused McClain to lose consciousness. When he woke, he vomited, inhaled that vomit and struggled to breathe. McClain was handcuffed and begged for help, but the officers did not let him get up from the ground or allow him to adjust his body so that he could breathe properly. Roedema instead used additional pain control techniques to stop McClain from moving.
The officers did call for paramedics, and Aurora paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec injected McClain with a dose of ketamine. McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, where he was later declared brain dead. He died Aug. 30, 2019.
Then-17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young cleared the officers of wrongdoing after an initial autopsy found McClain’s cause of death to be undetermined. But the case received renewed attention in 2020, after nationwide protests against police brutality, and Gov. Jared Polis appointed Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor.
The officers and paramedics were indicted on criminal charges in 2021.
During Tuesday’s opening statements, Assistant Attorney General Ann Joyce told jurors that Woodyard’s carotid hold started a “cascading flow of medical injuries” that — coupled with inaction by police and paramedics — led to McClain’s death. Woodyard’s defense attorney, Megan Downing, said the officer’s actions that night did not kill McClain, instead laying blame on the paramedics who injected McClain with ketamine.
“Nathan Woodyard did not kill Elijah McClain,” she told jurors. “He didn’t. …The only killer in the case is ketamine.”
Joyce focused on the officers’ and paramedics’ cumulative actions, referring to the group of five white men as a “bad team.” She said Woodyard did not follow his training after the carotid hold. He was trained on the technique 10 days before the encounter with McClain, and that training required officers to check McClain’s breathing and vitals, among other actions meant to counter the risk of the neck hold.
She said Woodyard unnecessarily escalated the encounter by using force on McClain within eight seconds instead of listening to what he was saying.
“This trial is about the continued callousness and indifference to Mr. McClain’s suffering,” she said.
Downing countered that Woodyard was acting on limited information at the time, and that he didn’t know whether McClain presented a threat when the officer approached. She said jurors and prosecutors can’t second-guess Woodyard’s actions four years later, with the benefit of hindsight.
“He doesn’t get to know whether it’s Elijah McClain walking home with iced tea, or James Holmes walking into a movie theater,” Downing told jurors, referring to the killer in the Aurora theater massacre — and drawing an objection from prosecutors that was sustained.
Woodyard sat quietly through the opening statements, at times with his hands folded in front of him, fingers interlaced. A few of his family members watched the proceedings in a largely empty courtroom.
Downing sought to downplay Woodyard’s role in the encounter, noting that he walked away from McClain for a few minutes after initially using the carotid hold, leaving McClain under restraint by Rosenblatt and Roedema. She suggested that he “disengaged” from the incident at that point and couldn’t be held responsible for the actions of others.
“When Officer Woodyard’s physical interaction with Mr. McClain stopped, Mr. McClain was alive,” she said.
Joyce cast Woodyard’s choice to walk away as “abandoning” McClain, and said it shows how far he strayed from his training on how to care for a suspect after a carotid hold. She also showed body-worn camera footage that showed Woodyard helping to load McClain onto a stretcher after the ketamine injection.
“Elijah McClain was his responsibility,” Joyce said. “He’s the officer who chose to use the carotid hold. He’s the one who should be at his side.”
Woodyard’s trial moved into testimony Tuesday afternoon and is expected to last three weeks
The paramedics’ joint jury trial is scheduled for November.
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