State rests case against Aurora officer charged in Elijah McClain’s death

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Nathan Woodyard, second from left, arrives at the Adams County Justice Center Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, for opening arguments in his trial in the death ion Elijah McClain.

State prosecutors on Friday rested their case against Aurora police officer Nathan Woodyard, who is charged with two felonies in the death of 23 year-old Elijah McClain.

McClain was walking home from a convenience store in 2019 when he was aggressively stopped by three officers and then given a large dose of ketamine by paramedics. He later died.

In the case made to an Adams County jury over the past two weeks, prosecutors say that Woodyard -- whose biggest role that evening was giving McClain a carotid control hold -- failed to follow proper training after administering that hold. 

That includes making sure the person who received it can breathe, is coherent and receives quick medical attention if they are showing signs of distress. Carotid control holds temporarily reduce blood flow to a person’s brain and usually cause a brief loss of consciousness.

McClain told officers seven times that he couldn’t breathe after receiving that hold. He also vomited repeatedly and grew increasingly catatonic in the 13 minutes officers struggled with him. Officers called paramedics, but, even with medics and EMTs on scene, no one specifically addressed his complaints that he couldn’t breathe or gave him medical attention, prosecutors said.

“Nobody did anything,” said Dr. Roger Mitchell, a forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner in Washington, D.C., who testified as an expert witness for the state. 

McClain did briefly pass out after Woodyard performed the carotid hold, which was an approved use of force at the time at the Aurora Police Department, The holds are now banned in Colorado.

APD’s training documents note that carotids shouldn’t be performed more than once on the same person. 

Another officer on the scene, Jason Rosenblatt, had tried to perform the maneuver before Woodyard, but it remains unclear from the body camera footage -- much of it can’t be seen because the cameras fell off  -- whether that carotid hold caused McClain to lose consciousness. Rosenblatt stood trial earlier and was found not-guilty of all charges connected to McClain’s death.

In this trial, though, prosecutors are trying to closely tie McClain’s death to the carotid hold and the actions Woodyard didn’t take afterwards. 

In body camera footage, it appears he left the scene -- something defense attorneys say exonerates him, but prosecutors say is a sign of negligence. 

“He's not following his training. He's not checking vitals. He's not kneeling down and trying to talk to Elijah McClain. He is too preoccupied,” said Ann Joyce, a prosecutor for the attorney general’s office, in her opening statement to the jury. She played multiple clips of body worn camera footage to the jury.

Joyce also noted Woodyard could be “CYA” in that moment  —  a euphemism meaning that he was trying to protect himself. 

“He's still looking at the ground, still not paying attention, indifferent to what is going on with Elijah McClain, indifferent to what is going on with his health,” Joyce said. 

Mitchell, who specializes in police custody deaths, said that McClain died both because of actions taken by police and a dose of ketamine given by paramedics.

“Elijah McClain was a normal 23 year-old walking home when he was in a violent altercation with others. Those others happened to be law enforcement,” he said. “He was placed in a carotid neck hold that led to hypoxia … and he started progressively getting worse.

That slightly contradicts McClain’s official autopsy report, which says that his cause of death is complications from ketamine following forcible restraint and his manner of death on that autopsy is “undetermined,” rather than homicide, accident or natural.

The forensic pathologist who performed that initial autopsy in the fall of 2019 said to jurors earlier in this trial that he couldn’t be sure what exactly caused McClain’s death. He said it was either the police struggle, which may have caused too much acid in the system, aspiration from McClain inhaling his own vomit, or the large dose of ketamine given by paramedics. 

“This level of ketamine was too much for him at that time. I can’t tell you if he got this dose of ketamine in a hospital setting, if the same situation would have happened,” Cina said. “Is it possible aspiration and maybe an asthma attack caused this death? Yes, that’s possible.”

Another expert witness called by the state told the jury that McClain inhaled a potentially lethal amount of vomit during the altercation and that he may have died no matter what -- even without the ketamine. 

Dr. David Beuther, an internationally known pulmonologist at National Jewish Center, said that when McClain was exerting energy in his struggle with police, his breathing grew more rapid. He told jurors that McClain apparently vomited into a mask he was wearing at the time and that caused aspiration. 

Mitchell agreed with Beuther’s assessment and showed photos to the jury of McClain’s lungs dotted with red that proved the aspiration. McClain’s face mask that he wore that night that has dried up vomit inside was also passed around to the jurors. 

“Before he gets the ketamine he needs help,” Mitchell said. “His baseline is gone. So, for me, he needed help before the ketamine and he needed help after the ketamine. I don’t know if he wouldn’t have gotten the ketamine if he would have lived or died. Of all the things that happened, the ketamine does not absolve the effects of the police actions.”

Defense attorneys have said that McClain’s death was a tragedy and that the officers all, in hindsight, would of course do things differently now. 

“The Aurora Police Department trained him to do in an instance like this so that no one would get hurt or killed and it worked because after he releases it, he does it perfectly appropriately as every expert will tell you,” Downing said, in an opening statement. “It's not a case about whether mistakes were made or something could have been done differently. It's a case about whether this person caused another person to die and he simply did not.” 

But she noted that, for Woodyard at least, his role in performing a then-legal police maneuver was not a contributor to McClain’s death and that, taken alone, carotid holds are not typically lethally dangerous.

The defense will begin presenting their case on Tuesday, and could bring up witnesses, including Woodyard himself, as soon as then. 
The case is expected to go to the jury no later than next Friday.