Community activists, lawmaker disheartened by not guilty verdict in trial in the death of Elijah McClain

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
After suspended Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard was found not guilty on charges over his role in the death of Elijah McClain, his mother Sheneen McClain, right, and supporter MiDian Holmes joined hands and raised their fists in protest as they left a courtroom at the Adams County Justice Center, Nov. 6, 2023.

In the hours after a jury found Aurora Officer Nathan Woodyard not guilty of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for his role in the death of Elijah McClain, those who have been watching the trial expressed a similar reaction: disappointment. 

State Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver has advocated for justice for Elijah McClain and called Monday’s verdict a miscarriage of justice. 

“There's no law that will make people respect the humanity of other people,” she said. “I wish there were, I wish we could write a law that says when a Black man is walking across the street that he's not innately dangerous to people."

Herod has also been a leading voice at the state Capitol for changing the rules for law enforcement across Colorado. 

“Elijah McClain's life did matter, and I think today's verdict showed that there are still so many issues with the system to allow this officer to be let off,” she said. 

Tyrone Glover is a civil rights attorney and the president of the Sam Cary Bar Association based in Denver. He spoke with CPR News minutes after the verdict was announced.

“I think unequivocally this is a disappointment for police accountability, but there are additional trials and a big piece of accountability is getting our prosecutors and representatives of the people to evaluate these cases the way they would any other citizen."

Organizer Lillian House, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation Denver, said it was “horrifying to see this officer acquitted for something that so many of us saw on camera and are completely clear on what happened. 

“There were three officers who were part of the slow and brutal death and murder of Elijah McClain, and we all watched it,” she continued.  

Even pushing for the officers to be charged and tried took a massive public effort, House said. Thousands took to the streets to demand justice a year after McClain’s death.  

“The city of Aurora from the District Attorney to the Aurora Police Department, the City Council, the mayor all of them were completely unified in letting Elijah's case go without any consequences,” House said. “There were going to be no charges, and we turned that around.” 

Though the verdict in Woodyard’s case has been decided, the struggle is far from over, House said. 

“We're up against a system that stands behind its police officers and their right to kill with impunity,” House said. “It's a system that has to change, a system that has to actually be displaced. We need a new system because we should not just be fighting and clawing for justice in the face of endless insults, endless brutality, endless disrespect, but instead, human life and human dignity should be the starting point.”

The Aurora Police Department shared a statement on social media on Monday. 

"As previously stated, I know many have been waiting a long time for the involved party to have his day in court,” said Interim Chief Art Acevedo. “As a nation, we must be committed to the rule of law.  As such, we hold the American judicial process in high regard.  We respect the verdict handed down by the jury, and thank the members of the jury for their thoughtful deliberation and service. Due to the additional pending trial, the Aurora Police Department is precluded from further comment at this time."  

Aurora community organizer Candice Bailey, who has been involved in the years-long call for justice in McClain’s death, said she felt disgusted when she heard word about the verdict. 

“I feel like they are going to attempt to put it all on the paramedics,” said Bailey. “I feel like every person there played a role in this. And that everyone should be held accountable because every one of them took an oath.” 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks with reporters at the Adams County Justice Center on Monday, Nov. 5, 2023, after a jury found suspended Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard not guilty over his role in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser was at the courthouse for the verdict on Monday afternoon. The Adams County district attorney declined to press charges in the violent arrest of McClain in 2019, but after protests over police brutality and racial justice in Denver and Aurora, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate the death of McClain, which led to the charges against five people.

“Today's verdict is not the one that we had hoped for, but we respect the jury system and we accept the outcome,” he said. “We remained undeterred in our pursuit of accountability and justice for Elijah McClain.”

Glover, the civil rights lawyer said there is still another trial to go. 

“We didn't get the result we wanted today, but we still have the paramedics,” he said.

That trial is set to begin Nov. 27. 

Denverite reporter Kyle Harris contributed to this report