A Colorado jury has acquitted Nathan Woodyard, a police officer involved in the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man.
McClain’s death helped ignite nationwide protests against police brutality and racism in 2020 and helped influence the state to ban certain police neck restraint techniques.
The decision on Monday follows a state ruling last month in which another officer involved in the encounter was acquitted, while a third was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.
Police stopped McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, on 24 August 2019 after a 911 caller reported a “sketchy” person walking home from a convenience store. He was not suspected of any crime.
Officers put the Colorado man in a high-risk carotid hold neck restraint, knocking him unconscious.
He was later injected by paramedics with ketamine, a strong sedative, and died in the hospital a few days later.
Nathan Woodyard was the first officer to stop the 23-year-old, putting his hands on the unarmed man without explaining the reason for the stop.
Mr Woodyard, one of multiple officers who attempted to put McClain in a carotid hold, is currently suspended. The officer left the immediate area near the 23-year-old and walked about the scene of the stop as other officers physically struggled with McClain, according to body camera footage.
The officer, who had been on the Aurora police force for about two years at the time of the stop, argued that the paramedics who sedated McClain were responsible for his death.
“There are people guilty of killing Elijah McClain but they are not here today,” an attorney for the officer told jurors. “Nathan Woodyard did not kill Elijah McClain.”
The Adams County coroner held in a revised 2022 report that McClain died from ketamine administration following a forcible restraint, but that the ultimate cause of death was “undetermined.”
At trial, prosecutors brought forth their own expert who argued the combination of neck holds and sedation killed McClain.
“Both the restraint and the ketamine is what killed Elijah McClain,” forensic pathologist Roger Mitchell testified.
The state also argued the officer failed to follow APD training encouraging empathy, listening, mandated de-escalation, and medical follow-up after placing someone in a carotid hold, which temporarily cuts off the blood supply to their brain.
“Four years later he has empathy,” state attorney Jason Slothouber argued. “But the version of the defendant that Elijah McClain got is the one who caused his death by ignoring his training, ignoring Elijah’s claims and pleas for help, that he can’t breathe and that is exactly the story he was trained to avoid. That is why he’s guilty.”
On the stand, Officer Woodyard said he administered the potentially lethal neck hold because he heard a fellow officer say McClain reached for his gun, though prosecutors say the 23-year-old never tried to grab any weapon and that police body cameras fell on the ground during the encounter, eliminating potential evidence.
“I was expecting to get shot and I thought I’d never see my wife again,” he said.
Witnesses testified that after McClain regained consciousness, he threw up into a face mask he was wearing, and cried for help, potentially aspirating a dangerous amount of vomit.
The officer, who ripped off the mask, then left McClain in the care of his fellow officers and stepped away to compose himself.
“After taking off the mask and getting him in the recovery position, he was talking, forming complete sentences,” Mr Woodyard testified. “He seemed coherent.”
McClain’s family was seen walking out of the Adams County courtroom after the verdict on Monday holding their fists high.
“We remain undeterred in our pursuit of accountability and justice for Elijah McClain and his family and friends,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a statement to The Denver Post. “I’m thinking of Sheneen McClain, who has fought hard to keep her son’s memory alive. No mother should go through what she has. We must do all we can to stop the unlawful and unnecessary use of force that can result in people dying at the hands of law enforcement.”
In 2021, the city of Aurora paid $15m to McClain’s family to settle a civil rights lawsuit.