First officer on scene on trial for Elijah McClain’s death says he wishes he could do everything differently

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11min 03sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Flanked by members of his legal defense team, Nathan Woodyard arrives at the Adams County Justice Center on Thursday, October 19, 2023, for his trial in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.

Nathan Woodyard, the Aurora police officer first on the scene the night Elijah McClain was detained, said on Wednesday that the violent interaction he and other officers had with the unarmed 23 year-old and his decision to give McClain a carotid hold shook him to the point of tears, and he had to leave the scene to compose himself.

Woodyard, on trial for McClain’s death in Adams County, gave emotional testimony in his own defense on Wednesday. 

It was the first time any of the five people criminally charged for McClain’s death has spoken about what happened.

Woodyard tearfully told the jurors that he would do everything differently on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, if he could. He also admitted to violating a number of training protocols and requirements to be a peace officer in Aurora and Colorado.

That included his decision to go hands on with McClain, who didn’t show any signs of avoiding officers at the start of the interaction, almost immediately. He also said he wouldn’t have helped take McClain down to the grass. He said he regretted using the carotid hold, which cuts off blood flow to a person’s brain. Lastly, he regretted trusting his fellow officers to take care of McClain when he left to compose himself. 

His attorney, Megan Downing, asked, “Did you trust other officers would take care of him?”

Woodyard’s voice broke. “I did.” 

“Did they?” she asked.

“No, I know that now,” he said.

Woodyard told the jury everything shifted when, during the struggle that knocked off his glasses and a few body cameras, he heard former officer Randy Roedema say, “He just grabbed your gun, dude,” to the third officer on the scene, Jason Rosenblatt.

Roedema was convicted of criminally negligent homicide for McClain's death last month. Rosenblatt was found not guilty of all charges filed against him.

Woodyard told the jury that in the two years of being an officer at that time, he hadn’t ever been in a lethal situation. He had never administered a carotid hold in the field. And this was the first call of the night for him during a graveyard shift. 

He said he panicked. He didn’t know, immediately, whether McClain actually had a gun or had tried to grab it. He said he heard McClain say, “I intend to take my power back.” 

“I felt overwhelmed," he said. "I felt scared."

That’s when Woodyard, who had fallen behind McClain in the struggle on the grass, decided to give him the carotid hold, he said.

His attorney, Megan Downing, said, “Is it something that you take lightly? … Can you tell us why?”

“There's a lot that can go wrong with it. Mainly applied improperly. You can strangle somebody and cause damage that can harm their breathing,” he said.

McClain appeared to briefly lose consciousness after Woodyard administered the hold, and officers handcuffed him. When McClain regained consciousness, he began throwing up in a face mask he was wearing. His cries and pleas for help were muffled. Woodyard said that when he heard McClain say he couldn’t breathe, he reached over and yanked the mask off and threw it in the grass.

Expert witnesses have testified earlier in this trial that McClain very likely aspirated a very dangerous amount of vomit with the mask on.

But, with the mask removed, Woodyard said he believed the medical emergency was over. He said he didn’t notice the vomit in the mask immediately. That mask is part of the evidence and is encased in a box that was shown to the jury.

“After taking off the mask and getting him in the recovery position, he was talking, forming complete sentences,” Woodyard said. “He seemed coherent.”

That’s also when Woodyard said he needed to step away from the scene. 

Two sergeants, including his supervisor, were there and he said he felt himself losing composure after the gun scare and the carotid hold maneuver.

He first went to find his glasses, which were on the grass, and then he went to speak to his boss, Sgt. Rachel Nunez. He told the jurors on Wednesday that he cried in front of her and she told him to take a few minutes. 

So Woodyard said he went to his police car, cried again and tried to call his wife, he said.

“I was expecting to get shot and I thought I'd never see my wife again,” he said.

Woodyard’s wife sat behind the defense table on Wednesday tightly clutching a notebook, with her feet up on the half wall behind her husband’s attorneys. Her face reddened from time to time, but she mostly stared straight ahead as Woodyard spoke to the jury.

The jury appeared gripped by the testimony, many of them were scribbling notes the whole time, eyes darting between a weeping Woodyard and the attorney on the stand.

Woodyard acknowledged to prosecutors in questioning that there were several components to his training and the Aurora Police rules that he didn’t follow that night. That included leading with empathy and listening. It also included ensuring that the recipient of a carotid hold is coherent, has medical treatment and isn't deteriorating physically.

When paramedics arrived, no one seemingly communicated with them about McClain's condition, including Woodyard.

Prosecutor Jason Slothouber said, “when a supervisor shows up on scene, that doesn't remove everybody else from the obligation to do the right thing?”

Woodyard said, “no, it does not.”

Slothouber: “And you had the obligation to do the right thing and to follow your training even though there were supervisors on the scene?” 

Woodyard replied, “Yes.”

Slothouber also played several pieces of body worn camera footage and stopped it and asked Woodyard why he escalated the situation from the beginning and how he could have just talked to McClain -- rather than using force.

Earlier in the day, another Aurora sergeant, Dale Leonard, testified that the scene that evening was chaotic and he gave conflicting accounts of who was really in charge. At one point, Leonard said paramedics were in charge because of McClain's medical condition, and at another point, he said he was a supervisor, but that Woodyard’s supervisor, Nunez, was actually senior to him.

Leonard also said that even though Woodyard was the first to arrive, Roedema seemed to be running the detention of McClain.

Leonard also said that officers aren’t trained at all in medical emergencies, but was corrected by prosecutors that they are trained to take someone’s pulse and to check their breathing.

Leonard did say he noticed that McClain’s condition was worsening overall, and he was concerned. 

“Anyone could have stopped this,” Slothouber said to Leonard.

“Yes,” Leonard said.