Nathan Woodyard was the first officer to stop Mr. McClain in what became a violent encounter. The young, unarmed Black man died days later.
A second Colorado police officer has been acquitted in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young, unarmed Black man whose case attracted national attention and became central to debates about police brutality and race.
A jury on Monday found Nathan Woodyard, who was the first officer to stop Mr. McClain as he walked home from a convenience store in an Aurora, Colo., neighborhood, not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Mr. McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was approached by Mr. Woodyard after a 911 caller described him as “sketchy.” Mr. Woodyard quickly put his hands on Mr. McClain without explaining the reason for the stop, according to state prosecutors. Within minutes, he placed Mr. McClain in a neck restraint, known as a carotid hold, briefly rendering him unconscious. Paramedics then injected Mr. McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He died in the hospital several days later.
The verdict follows a recent split decision by another Colorado jury in an earlier trial involving officers in the same encounter. Last month, a jury convicted one officer but acquitted another in the case.
A total of five police officers and paramedics were charged two years after Mr. McClain’s 2019 death. Their trials have been among the most consequential police accountability cases since the death of George Floyd. A mostly white and female jury accepted Mr. Woodyard’s arguments that he was justified in using the now-banned neck restraint because Mr. McClain had, he believed, reached for another police officer’s gun during the struggle, and that the hold was not a factor in his death.
The acquittal was the second verdict in a case divided into three trials.
Mr. McClain’s mother, who has been in the courtroom for this trial and the previous one, began crying when she heard the verdict read.
Andrew Ho, the defense attorney who represented Mr. Woodyard, said, “We are so grateful the jury listened to all the evidence.”
Mr. Woodyard, 34, was the third and final police officer to go on trial. Randy Roedema was convicted of homicide and Jason Rosenblatt was acquitted on all counts last month. The joint trial of two paramedics is expected to begin on Nov. 27.
During Mr. Woodyard’s three-week trial, jurors were presented with two ways to think about his actions: State prosecutors argued that Mr. Woodyard chose confrontation over conversation. Defense lawyers argued he made quick decisions in a chaotic situation and was not responsible for Mr. McClain’s death.
The centerpiece of Mr. Woodyard’s defense was his own emotional recollection of the encounter with Mr. McClain, so far the only first-person account of their interaction.
Mr. Woodyard was working a late-night shift on Aug. 24, 2019, when he confronted Mr. McClain around 10:45 at night. Mr. McClain at the time was listening to music, waving his arms and wearing a mask, which his mother said he used because he was anemic.
Mr. Woodyard tearfully described a turbulent scene in which the three officers struggled to gain control of Mr. McClain. Mr. Woodyard said he placed him in the hold after Mr. Roedema said Mr. McClain was reaching for Mr. Rosenblatt’s gun, a claim disputed by prosecutors.
“I was expecting to get shot, and I thought I would never see my wife again,” Mr. Woodyard testified.
Jason Slothouber, a state prosecutor, told jurors that the “regretful, remorseful, empathetic version of Mr. Woodyard on the stand” was not the person Mr. McClain faced the night he was stopped.
The crux of the state’s argument against Mr. Woodyard was that the carotid hold, which puts pressure on the neck and makes it difficult to breathe, was the event that led to a cascade of health complications that made Mr. McClain more vulnerable to the ketamine, which ultimately caused his heart to stop.
Roger Mitchell, a forensic pathologist who specializes in deaths in custody, testified on behalf of the state that there was a direct link between the officer’s actions and Mr. McClain’s death, and he classified it as a homicide.
“Both the restraint and the ketamine is what killed Elijah McClain,” Mr. Mitchell said.
The defense said that the threat of a weapon and the officers’ struggle to control Mr. McClain drove Mr. Woodyard’s decision to use the carotid hold. He said he was worried that one of the officers might shoot Mr. McClain.
“‘This needs to end immediately,’” Mr. Woodyard testified that he remembered thinking at the time. “I was anticipating possibly being shot and dying and I had to use force.”
Throughout the trial, the defense shifted blame to the paramedics who administered the ketamine. Mr. Woodyard said that in hindsight he recognized his mistakes and would do things differently based “on what I know now.”
During the state’s cross-examination of Mr. Woodyard, he acknowledged that he had violated police department policy by failing to de-escalate the situation and alert paramedics about McClain’s respiratory distress, among other mistakes. Those failures, the state argued, directly caused Mr. McClain’s death.
Mr. McClain’s and Mr. Floyd’s deaths helped to usher in sweeping changes to police departments in Aurora and in Colorado state law. The trials, among the most high-profile since the summer of 2020, are being closely watched by social justice activists and court observers as a barometer of police accountability progress.
“Police accountability is still up for debate, even with actual evidence, even with body-cam footage,” said Charles Coleman Jr., a civil rights lawyer, former Brooklyn prosecutor and MSNBC legal analyst. “We’re still in a place where we cannot be certain that an officer’s conviction for wrongdoing will take place through our judicial system.”
But he added that prosecutors were showing more willingness to bring charges in cases involving police violence.