DENVER (AP) — A police officer charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain testified Wednesday that he put the 23-year-old Black man in a neck hold because he feared for his life after another officer said McClain grabbed for one of their guns.
Prosecutors have refuted that McClain ever tried to grab an officer’s gun, and it can’t be seen in body camera footage, which is shaky and dark before all the cameras fall off during the ensuing struggle. Lawyers for two other officers tried earlier in McClain’s death also raised the alleged gun grab as part of their defense.
“I was expecting to get shot, and I thought I’d never see my wife again,” Aurora officer Nathan Woodyard said on the stand, his voice shaking a bit, in his trial in McClain’s death. His death became a rallying cry at social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Lawyers for Woodyard have argued he had to react to what he heard in the moment. He was the first of three officers who approached McClain after a 17-year-old 911 caller said McClain, who was wearing earbuds and listening to music, seemed “sketchy” and was waving his arms as he walked home on the night of Aug. 24, 2019.
The encounter quickly escalated. Prosecutors say Woodyard put his hands on McClain within eight seconds of getting out of his patrol car without introducing himself or explaining why he wanted to talk to McClain. McClain, seemingly caught off guard, tried to keep walking.
Woodyard, the first police officer to testify in his defense, said he and two other officers, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, had McClain up against a wall when he heard McClain say, “I intend to take my power back” and then heard Roedema say, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.” Both statements can be heard on the visually unclear footage.
Roedema, who was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault in McClain’s death last month in a split verdict, later said McClain had reached for Rosenblatt’s gun. Rosenblatt was acquitted.
To gain control of McClain, Woodyard said he applied a carotid control hold by placing his arm around McClain’s neck, putting pressure on the sides to stop the flow of blood to McClain’s brain and render him briefly unconscious. The technique was allowed at the time but later banned in Colorado, one of over two dozen states that took steps to limit neck restraints after Floyd’s killing. McClain was then handcuffed.
Prosecutors said the hold, by cutting off oxygen to McClain’s brain, triggered a series of medical problems for him and that police officers and paramedics did nothing to help him, including making sure he could breathe. Instead, prosecutors said, police encouraged paramedics to give McClain an overdose of the sedative ketamine, which they claim only exacerbated his problems, ultimately killing him.
Paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec are scheduled to be prosecuted in the final trial in McClain’s death later this month. They have pleaded not guilty.
Woodyard testified that, soon after the neck hold, he heard McClain say he could not breathe, so he took off his mask. He believed McClain was able to breathe after that, laying on his side in what police call the recovery position, as opposed to facedown on his stomach.
Woodyard then left to talk to his supervisor who arrived on the scene, and he said he cried during the conversation. He said he was so shaken up by what happened that the supervisor suggested he take a break. He said he went to his car and cried some more and believed McClain would be safe with the other officers.
Prosecutors have portrayed Woodyard as abandoning McClain after using such serious force against him and suggested he was more concerned with administrative concerns, such as a possible investigation, rather than how McClain was doing. In cross-examining Woodyard, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jason Slothouber pointed out that the first thing he did after returning back on the scene was call Rosenblatt away to talk away from anyone’s body camera.
Later, Roedema, the only one of the three officers to restrain McClain throughout the encounter, told Rosenblatt and Woodyard how they were going to move McClain to a stretcher after the ketamine took effect. By then, McClain was no longer totally on his side, which would make it harder for him to breathe. Slothauber said Woodyard agreed to help and put on some gloves but did nothing to help McClain.
“You could have said, ‘Put this guy in the recovery position first’, but you didn’t,” Slothauber said.
Woodyard said he was not looking at McClain at the time.