BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a Denver-area police officer of manslaughter, following trial testimony that he put Elijah McClain in a neck hold before the Black man was injected with the powerful sedative ketamine by paramedics and died.
The acquittal came Monday in the second of three trials against first responders indicted by a grand jury over the 23-year-old massage therapist’s 2019 death. The charges were filed in 2021 following social justice protests nationwide in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
The first trial ended in a split verdict last month with one Aurora officer found guilty and another acquitted. Jury selection in the final trial, against paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec with the Aurora fire department, is scheduled to begin Nov. 27. They have pleaded not guilty.
Here’s what you need to know about the criminal trials:
WHY WERE THE OFFICERS AND PARAMEDICS CHARGED?
Local prosecutors initially decided not to bring charges in McClain’s death largely because an initial autopsy didn’t determine exactly how he died.
Following the protests over Floyd’s death Democratic Gov. Jared Polis directed the state attorney general to re-investigate the McClain case. A grand jury indicted the three officers and two paramedics in 2021. Dr. Stephen Cina, a forensic pathologist who performed McClain’s autopsy, said he changed his findings to pin the blame on the sedative ketamine in 2021 after looking at body camera footage.
WHY DID POLICE STOP McCLAIN
Officer Nathan Woodyard, who was acquitted Monday, was the first of three officers who approached McClain. A 17-year-old 911 caller had 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. McClain was often cold and wore a runner’s mask and jacket despite the warm weather.
The encounter quickly escalated as McClain, seemingly caught off guard, tried to keep walking. When officer Randy Roedema said that McClain had reached for one of their guns, Woodyard put him in a neck hold, pressing against his carotid artery, which rendered him temporarily unconscious.
Assistant Attorney General Ann Joyce said McClain didn’t try to get a gun, but defense attorney Megan Downing said Woodyard had to react quickly to what he heard.
A paramedic later injected McClain with an overdose of ketamine. He was pronounced dead three days later.
WHY WERE THE TWO OFFICERS ACQUITTED?
Woodyard was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Prosecutors contended his actions including the neck hold contributed to McClain’s death. But defense attorneys convinced the 12-person jury that the officer wasn’t responsible, arguing Woodyard wasn’t present during later crucial moments.
Woodyard 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.”
Rosenblatt — who faced charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault — also was acquitted. His attorney pointed out at trial that Rosenblatt was not near McClain when Roedema and another officer held down McClain while paramedics administered the ketamine.
Roedema was the moist senior of the three officers. He was convicted in October of negligent homicide and third-degree assault, and was then fired from Aurora’s police department. He faces a sentence of anywhere from probation to prison time.
McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, left the courthouse Monday with a fist raised in the air. She declined to talk to reporters but later told KUSA-TV that she was disappointed but not surprised at Woodyard’s acquittal.
“I don’t have faith in this system at all. Because it lets us down – not just people of color, it lets down everybody. They don’t do the right thing,” she said.
Even though everyone agrees McClain should not have died, holding police officers accountable for what happened through the legal system is difficult both because the law treats police differently than the average person and because most people picked to sit on juries have a generally favorable view of police, said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s law school.
Police are legally allowed to use force against others as long as they can explain why it was reasonable, he said. If you have an officer who said they feared for their life, as Woodyard said, and it’s not contradicted by other evidence, jurors could find that the force was justified, he said.
“It’s that moment, those seconds that will loom the largest and you’ll have an acquittal,” he said.
WHAT DO THE FIRST TWO TRIALS MEAN FOR THE PARAMEDICS?
The actions of Cooper and Cichuniec were a constant theme in the first two trials. They’re charged with manslaughter, negligent homicide and several counts each of assault — all felonies.
Defense attorneys for the officers repeatedly said it was the ketamine injection — not their clients — that caused McClain’s death. In Woodyard’s case, the defense brought in a paid expert witness who has also worked for the prosecution in the paramedic’s case. Dr. Nadia Iovettz-Tereshchenko, an emergency room doctor who has worked as a paramedic, said Cooper and Cichuniec did not follow their training protocols in caring for McClain.
Prosecution experts also said the ketamine was the ultimate cause of death after the officer’s violent stop of McClain set in motion events that led to and contributed to his killing.
A use of force expert who has been tracking the McClain case said it was unusual for medical professionals to be brought to trial for the death of a person in police custody.
“When paramedics show up at a scene they have to make fast decisions, obviously, and they base their decisions based on what the officer are telling them, and then apply what they believe is the proper course of treatment,” said Ed Obayashi, an attorney and use of force training adviser who spent more than two decades in law enforcement.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
This story has been changed to correct that jury selection for the next trial starts Nov. 27.