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Elijah McClain case: Body worn camera video of McClain's arrest by Aurora officers shown to jurors

Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard is charged with reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of McClain.
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Posted at 8:02 AM, Oct 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-19 10:02:38-04

Denver7 is following the second of three trials in the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died a few days after he was violently arrested by Aurora police on Aug. 24, 2019.

Aurora Police Department (APD) Officer Nathan Woodyard is charged with reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of McClain. Previously, a jury found APD Officer Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. Former APD Officer Jason Rosenblatt, who was fired by the department less than a year after McClain's death, was acquitted of all charges.

Woodyard, who is currently suspended from the APD, is accused of putting McClain in a carotid hold that rendered him unconscious before paramedics arrived to administer ketamine, a powerful sedative. The 23-year-old massage therapist encountered police on Aug. 24, 2019 after a person called 911 to report a “sketchy” man walking in Aurora.

Officers with the Aurora Police Department (APD) responded and put McClain, who was unarmed and had not committed a crime, into a neck hold. Paramedics administered the ketamine, which officials said led to cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.

He was declared brain dead days later and died Aug. 30, 2019. A pathologist found he was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for somebody of his size and, as a result, he overdosed. The City of Aurora settled a civil lawsuit with McClain’s family in November 2021 for $15 million.

Woodyard, along with two paramedics who have yet to face jury trials, have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in January 2023 in the wake of a grand jury indictment.

Two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics — Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper — have trials beginning Nov. 17 and 27, respectively, for charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, plus sentence enhancers. The paramedics are accused of injecting a significant amount of ketamine into McClain, causing him to overdose.

Scroll down to read updates from the Oct. 17 proceedings.


Wednesday, October 18

Wednesday's proceedings began where they left off with APD crime scene investigator Amanda Kelsey — one of the two investigators who responded to the scene the evening of McClain's fatal encounter with police.

Speaking to the prosecution, Kelsey said her role at the scene was to document what had happened to McClain and his injuries, as well as collect evidence from his person. In all, she told the court she took about 88 photos during McClain's autopsy.

In cross examination by defense attorney Megan Magdalena Downing, Kelsey was questioned about her duties as a crime scene investigator and about the ski mask that was reported to APD dispatch by a 911 caller who described a "sketchy" man walking in the neighborhood that night as he waved his hands in the air.

Kelsey told the defense that she was never asked to photograph a mask at the scene or afterward, and said she didn't recall a mask or if it was ever photographed by anybody who responded to the scene of McClain's arrest.

Kelsey was then excused from the bench after providing testimony.

BODY-WORN CAMERA VIDEO OF MCCLAIN'S ARREST IS SHOWN TO THE JURY

The second witness of the day — and the sixth overall for the trial so far — was Aurora Police Department Lt. Delbert Tisdale, who's been working for the department since 2001. Tisdale oversees the Aurora Police Department’s body worn camera program after serving in different roles since he first started working there more than 20 years ago.

In court Wednesday, Tisdale talked about his current role, which has to do with also overseeing the electronic support section of the APD as well as maintaining the digital evidence repository for the police department. He's been in the role for about 18 months, he said.

He mentioned that APD has been equipping officers with body-worn cameras (BWCs) since about 2016 or 2017 and that every officer is issued one. Those cameras are individually assigned and the officers wear them throughout their shift as they respond to calls. At the end of their shift, officers are instructed to remove them and put them in docks to recharge. Once docked, the files captured by the BWCs are then uploaded automatically into a digital evidence repository that also categorizes the videos based on types of calls for services.

The cameras, which are continuously recording video without audio unless activated to do so by an officer, will have records of the 30 seconds before they were activated by an officer due to the program's default settings, Tisdale said.

He explained how every piece of evidence has an audit log that tracks interactions anyone has with that evidence, basically showing who viewed, downloaded, or shared the body-worn camera footage, adding that nobody in the department has access "to delete, alter or in any way change the (BWC) videos within the system."

Tisdale explained to the jurors that after switching to a new system for the safekeeping and cataloging of BWC, called Axon, the department was able to maintain logs of the previous incidents before they moved to the new system, and are able to call logs from previous incidents and share them.

The prosecution then spent the rest of the time asking Tisdale to explain to the jury more about the metadata kept in the BWC, specifically on the time stamps that show a date and time of officers' interactions with people they may encounter.

After being questioned if he personally knew the officers involved in McClain, Tisdale was asked to identify several key aspects of things that were heard in the body-worn camera video, including a statement from Officer Woodyard, who was captured on BWC saying "Relax or I'm going to have to change the situation," after encountering McClain the night of Aug. 24, 2019.

The court went on a mid-morning and returned a few minutes later for cross examination by defense attorney Andrew E. Ho.

The defense spent the better part of an hour questioning him about the capabilities and the setbacks of body-worn camera (BWC) video, asking him if anyone in the department has the ability to edit or modify the video in any way, which Tisdale said couldn't be done, and also if wind can disrupt audio in a BWC video to the point that certain things said by the officers can't be heard correctly, if at all, which Tisdale said was possible.

Ho also asked Tisdale about the timing of the arrival of several officers at the scene and who was in charge at the scene of McClain's arrest before paramedics arrived at the scene.

Court went to a lunch break a little after noon and was expected to be back by 1:30 p.m.

WITNESSES IN PULMONARY AND CRITICAL CARE TESTIFY

After the lunch break, prosecutors called on Marc Moss, a professor of medicine and a pulmonary care physician at the CU School of Medicine with over 20 years of experience in the field. Moss treated McClain at UCHealth two days after the violent encounter with police, but was not there when McClain first arrived to the ER the night of Aug. 24.

Moss testified that he performed two tests on McClain to determine his brain function as well as tests on the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) on his blood. Both tests showed that McClain's health had deteriorated to the point that he was declared brain dead on on Aug. 27 at 3:31 p.m.

In cross examination, the defense tried to frame McClain's care at the hospital as the cause for his death, alluding to an improper imbalance in the amount of fluids he was administered to try to brig his blood pressure down, but Moss refuted those claims, saying that his lungs were already full of fluid, and that critical care in a hospital setting involves a whole constellation of factors. The administration of fluids to try and save his life would not have

"There's not one factor that's going predict whether a person gets better or not," Moss told defense attorney Megan Magdalena Downing.

In the redirect, prosecutor Shaheen Sheikh then asked follow-up questions the administration of fluids as the hospital, and whether their administration would have affected McClain's lungs at that point.

"Probably not - based on the evolution of his X-rays, he had ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) where membranes break down and fluids fill up membranes. That’s not affected by a fluid imbalance," Moss said. The administration of fluids by hospital staff would have impacted his lungs "to a very minor degree, if not at all."

Moss was then excused from the bench and the next witness was called to testify — Dr. David Beuther, a pulmonary critical care physician at National Jewish Health.

Beuther told prosecutor Ann Joyce he was asked to testify by the Attorney General's Office as National Jewish Health has "one of the best lung programs" in Colorado.

In questioning the witness, Joyce talked about the doctor's ability to review medical records to get a glimpse into what he was potentially dealing with when it came to McClain's health, whose records indicated he had asthma.

In testimony, Beuther said it was "very clear" that McClain had at least one episode of aspiration, which is when the body inhales a foreign object into the lungs, creating respiratory distress that could eventually result in death if left untreated.

Joyce then asked if perhaps asthma could have contributed to McClain's death, which Moss said "beyond a reasonable doubt" did not cause his death. Joyce then went through other potential factors that could have caused his death including marijuana consumption or other illicit drugs. Moss said that while traces of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) were found in his system, marijuana is not something that causes any respiratory problems, save for maybe a little irritation in the lungs. No other illicit drugs were found in his system.

What contributed to his death, Beuther said, were lung abnormalities that were apparent in x-rays taken of McClain.

McClain's lungs "were extremely abnormal ... were very, very heavy and full of fluid," Dr. Beuther said.

"This was not mild — it was something categorized as extremely life-threatening," he said, adding that McClain had lost the entire function of his right lung, which had food particles inside that McClain had inhaled in large quantities.

After coming backing from its afternoon recess, Joyce led Beuther through a series of questions as to how we would medically assess McClain's health during his whole encounter with police, from the moment he was stopped to when he was driven away in an ambulance.

At one point during this line of questioning, Beuther was asked to assess McClain's aspiration into the mask and to what level it could have prevented him from breathing properly.

"The issue here (is) he was clearly vomiting into the mask when it was still on and it had nowhere else to go. The only thing he can breathe is his own vomit," Beuther said.

In a further assessment as he was driven away in an ambulance, Beuther said McClain was already suffering from hypoxia (low levels of oxygen in the blood), aspiration (inhaling a foreign object into his lungs - in this case, vomit), and acidosis (too much acid in bodily fluids).

When questioned as to what could have been done differently by police, Beuther said the officers at the scene should have told arriving paramedics about a "significant change in status" for McClain, and not only about the choke hold performed on the 23-year-old, but also the fact that he couldn't breathe.

"In the world of critical care, we would call him dead at this point," Beuther said.

Court went to recess for the day and proceedings were expected to continue at 9 a.m. Thursday.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF THE TRIAL OF OFFICER WOODYARD
Day 1 — Tuesday, Oct. 17