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Second Police Officer Acquitted in Elijah McClain Death

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.

MiDian Holmes, a community activist who was in the courtroom on Monday, said after the verdict, “People keep talking about the system is changing and I don’t believe any of that.”

Andrew Ho, a defense attorney who represented Mr. Woodyard, said, “We are so grateful the jury listened to all the evidence.”

Phil Weiser, the state attorney general, said that his office knew the cases were going to be difficult to prosecute, and that the verdict was not the one they had hoped for. “We remain undeterred in our pursuit of accountability and justice for Elijah McClain and his family and friends,” Mr. Weiser said.

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: Prosecutors argued that Mr. Woodyard chose confrontation over conversation. Defense lawyers argued he made 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 waving his arms and wearing a mask, which his mother said he used because he was anemic.

Mr. Woodyard tearfully described a 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 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 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.

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 Mr. McClain’s respiratory distress, among other mistakes. Those failures, the state argued, directly caused Mr. McClain’s death.

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