BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — Elijah McClain’s mother wiped tears from her eyes as a verdict was read Monday acquitting a second Denver-area police officer in the 2019 death of her son.
Two of three officers to face trial so far avoided prison time after being found not guilty, leaving Sheneen McClain and police reform advocates still searching for justice. Elijah McClain’s death fueled national outrage about racial injustice in policing after the 23-year-old Black man was put in a neck hold and injected with an overdose of ketamine after police stopped him as he walked home from a convenience store.
In the most recent trial, a 12-person jury found Aurora officer Nathan Woodyard, who put McClain in the neck hold, not guilty of homicide and manslaughter following a weekslong trial in state district court. He faced years in prison if convicted.
Sheneen McClain sat in the front row of the courtroom and left with a fist raised high, just as she did after the first trial last month against two other officers. She declined to comment, but a supporter who accompanied her called the verdict “pathetic” and a sign that the justice system was not changing.
“Her son should be alive, and everybody claims to agree with that, but for some reason we can’t hold to account the people that took that away,” said MiDian Holmes, an activist who befriended Sheneen McClain after they met at a 2020 protest. “I think she understands and she recognizes that if she can feel, she can fight. This fight is not over for Sheneen McClain. She is going to turn this pain into promise and into progress.”
A third officer was convicted in the earlier trial of the lesser charges he faced — negligent homicide and third-degree assault. Two paramedics from the Aurora fire department are awaiting trial later this month.
Woodyard declined to comment following his acquittal. Defense lawyer Megan Downing said, “We believe it was the right verdict, not an easy one.”
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said outside the courthouse with the prosecuting attorneys by his side that his office was undeterred in its pursuit of justice for Elijah McClain.
“At this moment, I’m thinking about Sheneen McClain, who has fought hard to keep her son’s memory alive and to live on a blessing,” Weiser said. “No mother should go through what she has gone through.”
Unlike the first two officers who were prosecuted, Woodyard took the stand during his trial. He testified that he put McClain in the neck hold because he feared for his life after he heard McClain say, “I intend to take my power back” and another officer say, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.”
Defense attorneys stressed Woodyard was not there during the crucial minutes when McClain’s condition was deteriorating. Body camera footage seen by jurors showed Woodyard stepping away for part of the confrontation.
McClain’s death had received little attention until protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked renewed outrage. His pleading words captured on police body camera video, “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” struck a chord.
A local prosecutor in 2019 decided against criminal charges because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office to take another look at the case in 2020, and a grand jury indicted the officers and paramedics in 2021.
The killings of McClain, Floyd and others triggered a wave of legislation that put limits on the use of neck holds in more than two dozen states, including Colorado, which now also tells paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having a disputed condition known as excited delirium. The condition had been described in a since-withdrawn emergency physicians’ report as manifesting symptoms including increased strength. Critics have called it unscientific and rooted in racism.
McClain was stopped the night of Aug. 24, 2019, while walking home from a convenience store, listening to music and wearing a mask that covered most of his face. The police stop quickly became physical after McClain, seemingly caught off guard, asked to be left alone. He had not been accused of committing any crime.
Woodyard and other officers told investigators they took McClain down after hearing Officer Randy Roedema say McClain grabbed an officer’s gun. Roedema later said Officer Jason Rosenblatt’s gun was the target.
Prosecutors refuted that McClain ever tried to grab an officer’s gun, and it can’t be seen in body camera footage.
Woodyard said he put his arm around McClain’s neck and applied pressure on its sides to stop the flow of blood to McClain’s brain and render him briefly unconscious. The technique, known as a carotid control hold, was allowed at the time but later banned in Colorado.
Paramedics injected McClain with ketamine as Roedema and another officer who was not charged held him on the ground. McClain went into cardiac arrest en route to the hospital and died three days later.
Roedema was convicted earlier this month of the least serious charges he faced, which could lead to a sentence of anywhere from probation to prison time.
He was acquitted of all charges. His lawyer said the most junior officer on scene was a scapegoat in a prosecution driven by politics.
In both trials, the defense sought to pin the blame for McClain’s death on paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec. While attorneys in the first trial suggested McClain bore some responsibility for his medical decline by struggling with police, Woodyard’s lawyers seemed more sympathetic to McClain.
The city of Aurora agreed in 2021 to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents.