In his testimony on Wednesday, the policeman accused of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain stated that he placed the 23-year-old Black man in a neck hold out of concern for his life after hearing reports from another officer that McClain had reached for one of their firearms.
McClain’s attempt to take an officer’s gun has been denied by the prosecution, and the body camera footage shows only shaky, dark footage before all the cameras come off during the ensuing struggle. The claimed gun grab was brought up by the attorneys for two other policemen who were tried prior to McClain’s death in support of their case.
During his trial for McClain’s death, Aurora officer Nathan Woodyard said, his voice trembling a little, “I was expecting to get shot, and I thought I’d never see my wife again.” His passing served as a catalyst for social justice demonstrations after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.
Woodyard’s solicitors have maintained that he was forced to respond at the time to what he heard. He was the first of three officers to approach McClain after a 17-year-old 911 caller claimed that on the evening of August 24, 2019, McClain appeared “sketchy” and was swinging his arms while walking home while sporting headphones and music.
Things became heated very soon. Prosecutors claim that within eight seconds of stepping out of his patrol car, Woodyard touched McClain without saying hello or giving a reason for wanting to speak with him. Appearing to be taken by surprise, McClain attempted to continue walking.
In his defence, Woodyard stated that he and two other officers, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, had McClain pressed up against a wall when he overheard McClain declare, “I intend to take my power back,” and that he then heard Roedema remark, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.” The audio for both claims is audible on the blurry video.
Following a split judgement last month, Roedema—who was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault—stated that McClain had reached for Rosenblatt’s gun. Rosenblatt got off easy.
Woodyard claimed to have given McClain a carotid control hold, which involved putting his arm around McClain’s neck and applying pressure on the sides to halt the flow of blood to McClain’s brain and momentarily knock him out. After Floyd’s death, Colorado, one of the more than two dozen states that took action to restrict neck restraints, outlawed the practice, which had been permitted at the time. With that, McClain was handcuffed.
The prosecution said that because the hold prevented McClain’s brain from receiving oxygen, a number of medical issues developed in him and that neither police nor paramedics took any action to ensure his breathing. Prosecutors assert that instead, the police pushed paramedics to give McClain an overdose of the anaesthetic ketamine, which they say only made his condition worse and ultimately caused his death.
Later this month, the last trial in McClain’s death is expected to see the prosecution of paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec. They have pleaded not guilty.
Woodyard said that he heard McClain indicate he was having trouble breathing and removed his mask immediately after the neck hold. After that, he thought McClain was able to breathe and was lying on his side, not facedown on his stomach, in what the police refer to as the recovery posture.
After leaving the scene to speak with his supervisor, who had just arrived, Woodyard claimed to have sobbed during the exchange. He claimed that the supervisor advised him to take a break since he was so rattled by what had transpired. He claimed that after crying some more in his car, he thought McClain would be secure with the other police officers.
Prosecutors have presented Woodyard as having abandoned McClain following the use of such severe force against him, implying that administrative worries—like the potential for an investigation—were more important to him than McClain’s well-being. Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber noted during Woodyard’s cross-examination that the first thing he did upon his return to the scene was to summon Rosenblatt away so they could speak without being recorded by body cameras.
Later, once the ketamine took effect, Rosenblatt and Woodyard were informed by Roedema—the only one of the three policemen to keep McClain restrained during the encounter—about how they planned to transfer McClain to a stretcher. At that point, McClain was no longer entirely by his side, which would make breathing more difficult for him. Slothauber claimed that although Woodyard put on gloves and agreed to assist, he did nothing to assist McClain.
“You could have said, ‘Put this guy in the recovery position first’, but you didn’t,” Slothauber said.
Woodyard claimed that at the moment, he was not staring at McClain.