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Suspended Aurora police officer testifies in his own defense in Elijah McClain wrongful death trial

<i>Andy Cross/The Denver Post/AP</i><br/>Nathan Woodyard
Andy Cross/The Denver Post/AP
Nathan Woodyard

By Andi Babineau, CNN

(CNN) — Suspended Aurora, Colorado, police officer Nathan Woodyard took the stand Wednesday in his manslaughter trial over the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, stating in a back and forth with his defense attorney that he would handle the situation differently if he had it to do over.

“If you could go back knowing what you know now, would you approach him differently?” Megan Downing asked her client on direct examination.

“Yes, I would,” Woodyard responded.

“Do you think you could have tried to talk to Mr. McClain more?” Downing continued.

“Yes,” he said.

Woodyard is facing charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide related to the death of McClain, an unarmed 23-year-old Black man. He has pleaded not guilty and remains suspended from the department, pending the outcome of his trial.

The case focuses on the events of August 24, 2019, when officers responded to a call about a “suspicious person” wearing a ski mask, according to an indictment. Officers confronted McClain, a massage therapist, musician and animal lover who was walking home from a convenience store carrying a plastic bag with iced tea. He wore the mask because he was frequently cold, his family has said.

In an interaction captured on body camera footage, police wrestled McClain to the ground and placed him in a carotid hold, and paramedics later injected him with the powerful sedative ketamine. His heart stopped on the way to a hospital, and he was pronounced dead three days later.

Prosecutors initially declined to bring charges, but the case received renewed scrutiny following the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in spring 2020. A grand jury indicted three officers and two paramedics in McClain’s death in 2021.

Last month, a Colorado jury delivered a mixed verdict to the two other officers involved in the arrest. Randy Roedema, the senior patrol officer on scene who restrained McClain on the ground, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and assault, while officer Jason Rosenblatt, who attempted an initial unsuccessful carotid hold, was acquitted of all charges.

The two paramedics who treated McClain, Jeremy Cooper, 48, and Peter Cichuniec, 50, are set to go on trial in the coming weeks. They have pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and assault.

‘I was expecting to get shot’

On Wednesday, Woodyard testified for about three hours, during which he described his recollection of the events on August 24, 2019.

He choked up when recounting his reaction at hearing then-officer Roedema tell then-officer Rosenblatt, “He just grabbed your gun, dude!”

“I was expecting to get shot, and I thought I’d never see my wife again,” Woodyard said. “I thought I was in true danger.”

He said he found himself behind McClain while the officers were struggling with him on the ground, and that’s the point when he decided to apply the carotid hold.

“There’s very few things… that you can do to somebody that we’re trained on to stop their actions immediately,” Woodyard said. “When I applied it, I was attempting to get him to give up or to render him unconscious so he could stop fighting for a gun so we could put him in handcuffs at this time.”

Woodyard stated he never saw McClain holding a gun, and no evidence has been presented in the current trial nor the previous trial of Roedema and Rosenblatt showing that McClain had a gun or tried to take one from Rosenblatt.

Prosecution asks why Woodyard didn’t tell others McClain said he couldn’t breathe

On cross examiniation, prosecutor Jason Slothouber questioned Woodyard about why he didn’t tell his commanding officers or the paramedics about McClain’s claims that he couldn’t breathe.

“Despite being conscious of this risk that if somebody’s complaints of breathing were ignored they could die, you didn’t tell Sgt. (Dale) Leonard about Mr. McClain’s repeated statements, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Slothouber said.

“I did not,” Woodyard replied.

“Despite your consciousness of the risk of death from these complaints, you didn’t tell Sgt. (Rachel) Nuñez about Mr. McClain’s complaints that he can’t breathe,” Slothouber continued.

“I did not tell her,” Woodyard said.

“When you came back to the scene and Mr. McClain was about to get Ketamine and put on the gurney, you didn’t tell anyone about his complaints that he couldn’t breathe,” Slothouber stated.

“No. At the time, I thought it was explained by the mask being on,” Woodyard told him.

Slothouber further questioned whether Woodyard adhered to Aurora police training on carotid holds and checked McClain’s “coherency, signs of life, pulse, and breathing.”

“Before the handcuffs were even on, he was conscious, and he was fighting with us, so at that point, no, I didn’t check for a pulse,” Woodyard said.

An initial autopsy report in 2019 said McClain’s cause of death was “undetermined.” However, an amended report publicly released in 2022 listed “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint” as the cause of death.

Dr. Stephen Cina, the pathologist who signed the autopsy report, wrote he saw no evidence injuries inflicted by police contributed to McClain’s death, and McClain “would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine.”

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